To the feminists of Portland:
Feminism is an incredibly important movement. It has allowed women to unify and know that they are part of a community of people which support increasing the awareness of the female culture and spirit. It is an amazing thing to fight for: women should be seen as people who are every bit as worthy and deserving of the privileges that men enjoy. And that’s just the surface. For me to truly understand the importance and meaning of the movement, I would have to be female. It is something that, alas, as a male, I will never be able to appreciate in the same way as a woman, even if I can be madly in support of it.
Women still don’t earn as much income as men in comparable occupations and there is still an odd tendency to think that women belong in the kitchen. Work remains to be done, yet we can take comfort in the fact that the fight for equality over the years has had a huge effect on gender roles in our society.
That said, I am a male. I cannot help being a male, no more than you can help being a female. When you decide that the way to equality is not to fight for your rights but to take away mine, then you’ve taken the fight for equality and turned it into a movement towards inequality. And one of the more damaging ways to pursue this fight is to label me from the moment you meet me as an alpha male and thus right off my right to express myself as who I really am.
I am a very complex person, as complex as any human being. As you would not want to be labeled sensitive because you have breasts, I do not want to be labeled as overbearing because I have testicles. Give me a chance: talk to me. I trust that you will find that not only am I not a misogynistic asshole, but I am very much in support of your cause.
This is not an attack on feminism. This is not an attack on woman. This is me, expressing the hurt I felt when I realized that I was being judged on my appearance and not on who I am. And maybe that feeling of judgement is one you can relate to. It is a feeling I would like to combat in all societies and all cultures.
I was thinking more about Mass Effect tonight, in preparation to revisit my female Shepherd in the auspices of the Citadel DLC. I was also thinking about the video game version of Blade Runner. To this day, BR is the only video game I’ve played which truly got choice based gameplay right.
The way BR worked was a “narrowing down of possibilities” style. At the beginning of the game, you had seven or eight endings available to you. By the end of the first chapter, your choices would’ve closed two off. By the end of the second chapter, another two would be closed off. By the time you got to the actual endgame, only two or three endings would still be available. You couldn’t play a Replicant Lover for the whole game and suddenly, in the end game, unlock the “Best Bounty Hunter” ending (also known as the Krystal ending, for the hot babe you get to be with if you go this route). That one was closed off very early on if you made moves to support Replicants.
What this led to was a true need to play the game multiple times and try being a different character each time. Because you couldn’t play nice all game and then suddenly be a dick in the last hour of the game and unlock the “dick” ending. It took more commitment than that, and thus the reward was more fulfilling. When you made decisions, they mattered, because other decisions were closed off.
Mass Effect had such opportunity to do this, and to a degree it does. It handles who lives and dies very well, especially in the Krogan and Geth story lines. The dating is a little weaker, because you can romance everyone to a certain point, but it’s still satisfying. But Mass Effect doesn’t quite bring the choices as far as it could. Much has been complained about the “here’s three doorways” ending, but even beyond this, Mass Effect had very few choices which affected gameplay or game design at all.
Here’s an example. What if, in Mass Effect 2, you could make the effort to save everyone in your team from death in the final Reaper assault, but doing so meant you had to give up the opportunity to teach Shepherd two v very useful and unique psychic abilities? This would make such decisions much more dynamic. It would even make sense: a Shepherd who was willing to sacrifice her team to be a one-man army would have stronger solo-capabilities; a Shepherd who was giving up those abilities would naturally be relying more on teamwork.
Another place this could have easily been put in place was upgrading the ship. Why is it so cheap to upgrade your ship fully? You can easily upgrade the ship, upgrade everyone on the crew, upgrade Shepherd, and still have plenty of creds left over to buy a few dozen fish (to replace the ones that inevitably starved the last time you bought fish). Why was this the case? Why weren’t credits more precious or the ship more expensive to build up, so that you couldn’t choose to both upgrade Shepherd and the ship? Here was an easy opportunity to force players into choice based gameplay. Upgrade your ship to save everyone, or spend the precious credits on upgrading weapons and powers,
As Mass Effect 2 stands now, there is a “right” and “wrong” way to play the game. Once you know how to save everyone (something that I figured out on my first playthrough without much trouble), you’d have to consciously fuck up in order to have anyone die in that missions. Essentially, you’d have to willfully plan to have them get killed, and without any benefit to doing so. It’s one reason I’ve avoided a second Mass Effect playthrough, because I can’t imagine making those kind of changes to my first playthrough. There’s no incentive to change those things and, in a game that tries to showcase its choices as ME does, such lack of incentive is anathema, and unfortunate.
Chrono Trigger was another game that did this right, with the choice to save Magus and get him on your party, or to kill him and free Frog from his curse. While most people couldn’t pass up the chance to get one of the coolest characters in any RPG on their party, it was not inconceivable to defeat him to save Frog (who was the second coolect character), and letting Magus live always carried with it a slight pang of guilt.
Anyway, just thoughts I’m musing on. I’m still waiting for the next Blade Runner or Magus moment in gaming, and I’m surprised that ME wasn’t the one to deliver on it, with all the many sophistications of its programming and branching story.
Citadel DLC run coming soon….
I was turned down for a job today, and then the company had the gall to offer me volunteer work in the same email. I will be respectful and not share the name of the company, but let me say that it is a huge corporation that easily pulls in over a billion dollars a year. The arrogance displayed by that “offer” is exactly what has angered me in the last few weeks about the current job situation. We, as employees, have given too much power to our employers. We bow at their feet for table scraps. To think I’ve ended up as an adult in a job market where employers think they can have us work for free in return for “resume building opportunities.” Do we truly undervalue ourselves so much that we’ve given power over our lives and careers to employers? Well, not this dog. From now on, a company has to sell itself to me, not the other way around. When I’m convinced that you are the place that I want to work, then I will send you my resume and we can start the interview process: as equals, on equal footing, with equal benefit to come from our collaboration.
Okay, job search sites. I see how it is. Your companies want people with 5-10 years experience. You want faceless names that have worked and managed for big companies like Nike and Apple. Well, I don’t proscribe to that viewpoint. I’ve been alive for 29 years: I thus have 29 years of experiences, experiences which no one else has had, and that’s what makes me an individual human being.
And in that time I’ve held the most difficult managing job possible: managing myself, a complicated person with doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams. In managing this person, I’ve had to learn improvisation and how to go with the flow, because sometimes I wake up and I’m not who I was yesterday, and I’m not who I will be tomorrow. I’ve also had to learn compassion, patience, and forgiveness. Sometimes I need support. Sometimes I go the wrong way or make mistakes. I’m a team player on a solo team, leading myself by example. It’s not easy, but I’ve learned how to deal with the anxiety and always keep my eye on the bigger picture and because of this, I have accomplished great things; things I am proud of.
This is who I am. This is how I think of myself. I am more than can be captured by your online PDF resumes and one-click capture buttons and stupid usernames which need to be a certain length and use such-and-such characters and so many numbers.
I am done marketing myself in this way. Your online sites do not represent me and will not get me the jobs I want, the jobs I deserve, and the jobs that I will be successful at. I’m hitting the streets, to meet people in person and have real conversations. I aim to be more than application number 1351872273. I aim to bring my personality into my job search, because that’s how I have been successful in everything else I’ve done: by being true to who I am, and continually expressing that.
Farewell, job search sites. Maybe I’ll come back to you after I’ve spent 5-10 years working at Apple.
.ZHAR placed one hand over .CAI’s and slowly stepped back until they were both standing with their backs up against the closest wall. He wanted to be in the area of her shield and present as little a target as possibile. His own defenses were about to go down for a moment. She didn’t seem to object. The shield wasn’t up yet, she was probably concentrating.
His thoughts still felt a bit slow from the previous backlash he had suffered in the tunnels, and he was glad to have the little blue-hued healer with him, though he would never admit it to her. Healers were a rarity among Ghosts, and that made them a commodity. And like any commodity in Purgatory, that put them in a powerful position. He liked that .CAI had her insecurities, it kept her from abusing that power. It was too bad he had never met her before being found by .SOURCE. He could have formed his own coven, then. Maybe he still could, if he could get her away from .GREP. But survival first.
Reaching out, slowly and cautiously this time, .ZHAR let his energy sense drift outward and tried to detect whatever it was that had made the noise—or anything else in the vicinity, for that matter. .SORT, if the bastard hadn’t run off. Advanced warnings on more //Wraiths would be welcome, even more so than detecting //Loot. Money would mean little to him if he was to suffer a Soul Crash here.
.ZHAR kept his power dull at first, letting it reveal that there was nothing in this room aside from themselves. Then he began to siphon more energy into his ability and increase its scope.
He first felt the presence on the very edge of the room, huddling near a giant archway to the north of the room. He could never see shapes very well with his ability, but he could sense immediately that it was a second-tier //Wraith, in terms of danger somewhere high above //RATS but somewhere below the //VIPER still pounding its head against his barrier downstairs.
On a whim he extended his power further and that’s when he felt the Ghost. He or she was so distant from their current position that he couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, though he wanted to say that the Ghost was standing in the station entrance. He had only barely felt the Ghost’s presence before his senses turned to static in his mind. He shut down his ability at once, not sure if this was an attack from the Ghost or simply his ability being strained. It did only have so far a range, after all, and he wasn’t even sure if the Ghost was their enemy. It could very well be .SORT, or even .SOURCE, though he thought he would have recognized the energy signature immediately in either case.
To the others it seemed like .ZHAR had become a rock: he stood stock still, his head slowly turning on his neck as he scanned the area. Twice his aura pulsated with a flash of color. There was no other change.
Self doubt has set in, which is a sign that I haven’t been writing frequently enough. But then, I’ve been too busy. Not necessarily time busy, but mentally busy. Hard, sometimes, to have the mental energy to work through a new section of the story. But I did really enjoy what I penned tonight. Here’s an excerpt:
.CAI grabbed .GREP’s arm as they retreated. Her energies were soothing, rapidly winding through .GREP’s Ghost. Her light blue, wispy tendrils curved into his amber form, wrapping him from head to toe before returning to her. The experience, for .GREP, was not unlike receiving a full-body pat-down and was unashamedly intrusive. But all the members of the group had long ago to become used to .CAI’S techniques.
You’re not badly hurt. The risk that would come with trying to heal you fully now isn’t worth the gain but that should ease the pain, let you run. Tell me if it gets worse.
Her mind-voice was far softer than her normal scathing tone. In return she felt a wave of .GREP’s gratitude and something
the room was quiet, though the city lights shone out brightly beyond the windows. If she were to open them, the night life would come flooding in as a mixture of music, yelling, and the sounds of various vehicles. But she didn’t move; she simply stood and looked out. His eyes wandered up the naked, gentle curve of her back, marking the muscles that made up its landscape and the scars that told her story. He could see her face reflected in the window. Her eyes caught his and he reached for the bottle at his elbow, taking a slow swig of the heavy liquor. It tasted like mouthwash and cough syrup but was, somehow, not half bad. Vesper, he called her, and told her to come to him. She laughed and told him to come to her. He drank again, and brought the bottle with him
else, a memory he didn’t known she seen. A daydream, in the middle of night. Had her voice invoked it? She wondered who the woman was, and then felt guilty for wondering. She hadn’t been meant to see that. She’d been a voyeur. Unintentionally, but now she needed to do the courtesy of putting it out of her mind.
“Don’t get hurt again,” she said out loud, in a harsher tone, severing their connection.
Witnessing the return of Interactive Fiction (IF) to the gaming world has felt a little bit like waking up to find a Dodo on my front porch. I feel a simultaneous urge to inform to world about the discovery while also coming up with a proper breeding program. But I’m far too busy to be bothered. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the best of what modern Interactive Fiction has to offer.
One game stands out above the rest for me. Blue Lacuna (as discussed elsewhere) is an incredible, intelligent, gaming experience that could only come from an incredibly creative mind. So I was pretty excited when that mind agreed to do an interview with Gameroni.
Aaron Reed, born 1979, is currently a second year MFA student in the Digital Arts and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz who has accomplished what most of us only dream of… he’s quit his day job as a database admin to focus on what he loves to do! His responses to my questions revealed not only the creativity I’d expected, but also a drive to apply this creativity to a diverse range of fields.
me: A lot of people that want to get into writing their own IF games find they simply don’t have the time. Lacuna is such a huge game, how did you find the time to program it?
Aaron: Well, I did have a day job during most of Blue Lacuna’s development. It was a hobby that sort of took over my life. But I worked on it evenings and weekends, and finally actually quit my job and started working freelance during my final push to finish it up.
I really needed to get it finished and out there, not only because of the amount of time put into it, but because I really believed I’d made something I could be proud of, and wanted to share it.
me: Was there any point when you ran into difficulties? Enough to make you rethink the project?
Aaron: So many points. :)
I tend to write very iteratively— I have to rewrite things over and over again until I’m happy with them. When you’re writing a game along with words, that means rewrites are that much more complicated.
There were several major portions of BL that got redesigned and rewritten several times. The opening sequence with Rume and the various dream sequences are a few examples that went through at least three total rewrites/redesigns.
me: Any specifics? Like, was it a particular puzzle… or dialogue…
Aaron: I think those difficulties were mostly based around figuring out how to give the player genuinely meaningful choice and participation in the story.
So the dreams, for instance— narratively, they serve an expository purpose. You’re learning more bits of backstory in each one. Initially, that was just sort of a data dump, bits of text. But I realized that wasn’t very interesting or interactive.
So the second version turned them into conversations, where you could have back and forth, explore different avenues and so on. But you still weren’t really participating in a meaningful way.
In the final version you actually become the people in the dreams, and— in some cases— the actions you decide to take or not to take have impact on the larger story, or at least your interpretation of it. Your actions in those “flashbacks” become what the character in question actually did.
So I think that was a big improvement from where I started out.
me: I’ve read other interviews where you said that the story came to you before the “game.” Were there any major changes you had to make to the story in order to fit a more interactive medium?
Aaron: That’s interesting that at some point I said that, because the way I remember it now at least, the game came first. I started sketching some maps of an adventure/puzzle game while I was working on “Whom the Telling Changed” (a previous IF project which had a lot of complicated story structure and plot branching stuff).
I think I was sort of fantasizing about working on an easier project. (Little did I know…) But pretty much all along, the story and game evolved together. I’ve had some people ask me things like, “Would you ever write a book based on it?” Which to me feels very impossible— I don’t feel it’s a story that would work at all in a non-participatory medium.
me: Speaking about some of the evolution of the story and game, where did the inspiration for Progue come from?
[Editor’s note: in Blue Lacuna, Progue is a man you meet on the island. Much of the plot ends up revolving around his history and how he came to the island. Rume, another character, is the lover that the player leaves behind.]
Aaron: Progue was something else that evolved a lot. I guess he started out as a sort of stock “crazy old hermit” character. But I put a lot of time into fleshing him out and trying to make him more real.
I read a lot of books about madness— there’s a great one called, I think, “A Mad Person’s History of Madness,” which is a compliation of writing from people deemed legally insane in their societies— and a lot of books about people who had spent lots of time alone.
I kept a journal as Progue for a while and he developed his own unique handwriting. Probably the weirdest (maddest?) thing I did in the process was stay up late one night writing questions to him, and writing stream of conscious answers back in his handwriting. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say, and he actually gave me some strongly worded advice on what he thought should happen to him— that was when I started to feel like I was really succeeding at building him up into a real character.
me: What about Rume? Rume seems like a difficult character to write because you had to appeal to a potentially wide range of interpretations of what a romantic figure is…
Aaron: Right. It was fascinating to me how different the same words seemed when I was imagining Rume as a man versus imagining Rume as a woman. There are sort of two versions of the character in my head, and I would switch between them when editing. “Let’s see if this Rume would say that…”
Rume was a challenge because originally the character was a fairly artificial stumbling block introduced into the plot. “Let’s add some complications here— what if you’re in love and you have to go?” So to develop that plot point out into a character who felt genuine and not like just a trick took a lot of work.
And to make the decision to stay with or leave Rume important took a lot of thinking, too. Not to spoil anything, but it has more of an impact on the story than might at first be apparent.
me: You also allow for the player and Rume to be of the same sex, which is something that we still don’t see a lot of in video games. As something that appeals to a wide range of audiences, what kind of position do you think video games are in to promote social progression?
Aaron: I think games, especially story-based games, are going to have a major impact on society whether their creators intend them to or not. I feel like my future work is heading towards doing that more intentionally.
But even in BL it was definitely on my mind. Growing up as a gay teenager I loved games, but there were practically zero games at the time that had any sort of positive queer role models (Lorelei Shannon’s “Phantasmagoria 2” was a rare if troubled example).
I find it a huge shame that by and large this is still true today. In my own work I very much want to explicitly give a place for gay and lesbian players in my story worlds.
If I can pass along to even one gay teen somewhere that you can be gay and still be an adventurer, or find love, or do anything that straight characters in games can do, I’ll feel like my effort has been worthwhile.
me: You talked in one interview about the possibility of IF gaming entering into the educational arena (which I think goes along with your previous point). Your new book, Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, seems to be a strong example of hands-on teaching as it is accompanied by your new game Sand Dancer.
Can you talk a little bit about your educational experience and how that inspired you to teach in this format? I imagine you weren’t a lover of lecture halls…
Aaron: Right— this is another area where I feel games aren’t yet meeting their potential. I’m reading “The Age of Propaganda,” and it just mentioned a study done where people who are asked to figure out how to persuade others to do something are four or five times more likely to adopt that behavior themselves than people who are simply lectured about doing it. This seems similar to me to the whole “learn by doing” thing.
There is some IF, like Peter Nepsted’s “1893: A World’s Fair Mystery,” that recreates a historical event with vivid and well-researched detail, and is so much more accessible and entertaining than simply reading a book about the Chicago World’s Fair would be.
I’d love to see more things like this, or write them myself someday. I think being placed in an environment and asked to react and act engages many more parts of your brain than just passively observing.
me: So the big question on this subject is… how do you think technology can be applied in the classroom?
Aaron: That’s the trick, right?
To a certain extent, I think that’s already starting. In college courses at least, you’re starting to see interactive works assigned on a syllabus alongside readings and films.
I think that process will continue, but hopefully start even earlier. So in addition to reading a book or watching a film about the Civil War in public school, you might play a game about it from the perspective of a character on the Union side, and another told from the point of view of a Southern general. And maybe a third from the point of view of a slave.
I think as more and more teachers who grew up comfortable with this technology are in place, and more people start writing games that can fill these roles, it will be a natural progression.
me: And how could Interactive Fiction could provide a better medium for this than, say, a graphics heavy game?
Aaron: I wouldn’t say IF is necessarily better at this sort of thing— just far, far less difficult to create.
You’re going to have a hard time convincing a AAA gaming studio to spend ten million dollars on a game exploring issues of racism in the antebellum south, but you just need to convince one IF author to do the same thing (In fact, at least one already has: “LASH” by Paul O’Brian).
me: Good point.
Aaron: I think this is why IF in general is doing so many fascinating experiments all the time that you don’t see in the mainstream game industry— because nobody’s livelihood is in the line, and nobody’s investors are beating down the door asking if this game is going to produce a profit.
It’s auteur-driven, which is difficult when millions of dollars are at stake.
me: Along those same lines, one thing that struck me about Blue Lacuna was the sense of freedom in the game, a freedom that so many modern games seem to be striking for. What lessons do you think a modern narrative game, like the Fallout series, could take from Interactive Fiction?
Aaron: I think big-budget games need to figure out how they can be made more cheaply. As long as budget dictates aiming for the lowest common denominator, it’s incredibly difficult to make anything that pushes the boundaries, explores new directions, or reaches previously untapped markets.
Fallout is an interesting example— I actually still haven’t played Fallout 3, but I was a huge Oblivion fan, and I think Bethesda in general walks that line really well. Again, for narrative games at least, I think it all comes down to genuinely meaningful choice. In Oblivion, there are a lot of interesting choices you can make, all the time— should I join the Fighter’s Guild or the Assassins? Should I improve this stat or that? Should I buy a house in the big city or the country? Should I explore the countryside looking for random dungeons to loot or follow the main quest line?
You’re not just jumping through hoops all the time: you actually get to participate, to live in that world.
The one other thing I’d say is that mainstream games have been trying their damndest for twenty-five years now to be as exactly like movies as possible. “Heavy Rain” was like that— it wanted to be “Seven” so bad. I would love it if games could get past that mentality and develop into their own unique medium that plays to its own strengths.
me: In most modern interactive fiction I’ve played, the main character can’t die or get stuck. This holds true for your games, too. This seems to be a clear difference from early IF games. What do you think has brought about this change in sensibility?
Aaron: I think it’s part of the natural progression IF is experiencing from “arcade game” to “form of literature.”
A lot of the tropes in early IF— a score, lots of death, collecting treasure— sort of came about because those were the dominant themes in video games at the time. Those games have moved in other directions now— we usually see achievements these days, not a high score, for instance— and IF is moving in a different direction.
Really, what it comes down to is a sudden unexpected death does not make for a very interesting story. :)
me: Last couple of questions, here…. Will your games continue to be free? What are your thoughts on freely available games? Does it hurt your ability to build a business around your talents?
Aaron: I’ve had mixed feelings about Blue Lacuna being free. On the one hand, it’s been able to reach a very broad audience that way, and has more than paid me back for my time in many other ways. On the other, I worry a little that it contributes to the perception that IF should always be free and will never be marketable again.
I think we’re lucky to be living in a time when crowdsourced projects are more possible and successful than ever. One of my classmates at UCSC here did a successful Kickstarter project to work on a text-based interactive story (Heather Logas’ “Before You Close Your Eyes”) and I know there’s work to start selling IF as downloadable content for platforms like the Kindle and the iPad.
me: Handheld IF!
Aaron: Yes! I’ve always wanted to make a deluxe/premium edition of Blue Lacuna— sort of the “leather-bound hardback edition”— but it hasn’t really been possible while working on a graduate degree! Maybe some day…
me: I’m going to close on a selfish note… I’d actually like to get into programming IF myself. Any advice? I’ve already got your book on the way…
Aaron: Well hey, that’s a good start. :)
Seriously, the best advice is to play the best IF that’s out there to get a feel for what’s possible in this medium— and think about what kinds of stories aren’t being told in other formats.
One of the reasons that “Photopia” is one of the most highly-praised IFs— even though it’s not terribly interactive— is that it reveals a story in a such a novel way, by putting you in the heads and bodies of all of the characters who were involved. The way you understand that story from actually becoming all its participants, no matter how briefly, is profoundly moving.
There’s so much narrative potential in stepping into somebody’s skin and understanding how they think. IF is a uniquely suited medium for exploring those mental spaces.
me: Do you have anything coming up in the future? I’d love to keep in touch with your projects.
Aaron: I have my hands in a lot of pots right now— UCSC is home to a lot of exciting games and narrative AI research. I’m also working on my thesis project, where I’m partnering with a student with some amazing augmented reality technology to create stories you can actually physically move through. It should be very cool when it comes together. :)
me: Thanks so much for your time, Aaron.
Aaron: Hey, thanks for the interest. :)
I’d like to take this moment to thank Aaron Reed for answering my questions, for his thoughts on the future applications of IF gaming and for working towards bringing video games wider social attention. His book is available on Amazon.
Are you a developer with something interesting to say about an awesome game? Let us know. Maybe we can talk to you next!
Ten crazy busy days and now I’m finally getting a chance to write again. 10,000 words so far and we’ve already gotten in one battle and introduced the main players. I’m trying not to second guess myself on this one, at least not until it’s all finished. It’s a motto of mine that I try to bring to writing and editing: don’t fix the machine until you’ve built it.
.GREP got to his feet, pain shooting through his body. He didn’t quite understand pain on the Ghost Plane. It should be an issue of mind over matter, you’d think. It would make sense in a place where you could walk on walls and will things, like .CAI’s nets, into existence. But then, that was lesson number one that he’d learned to obey as a Ghost: never expect something to make sense. .SOURCE’s words.
The //RATs were a nuisance, as always. If they could be knocked out, even if temporarily, it’d buy the team time to find a better spot—being pincered in here by the other “trouble” .ZHAR was sensing would be suicidal. But then, something was interfering. He’d never known a //RAT, which was a low-level Wraith, to recover from a shot like the one he’d landed on that one. And he’d felt something, too, when .SORT had tried to will it to sleep. Someone was watching. Probably the same someone who was shielding whatever was coming from his heightened senses. There was no way to prepare for it. He’d already been caught off guard once in this fight, and it was only the first move. He needed to start the game over entirely. He was used to this kind of analysis. But he was also used to telling it to .SOURCE and letting him make the final call. The man had so much more experience then he did.
“Disengage,” he heard himself say, before he realized he’d made the decision. But yes, it was the right decision. “Disengage! We need to find a more defensible position. If we can find a branch in the tunnels as we advance, we might be able to flank them.”
Lesson twelve: Don’t engage the enemy if you don’t have to. If you do have to engage the enemy, always do it on your terms.
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… then there’s those products that come out and remind you what quality is. Holy shit, Tomb Raider is a sign of what Square Enix should be spending its time on. Final Fantasy is officially dead. This is the future of gaming.
Let me back up a little bit. I played Tomb Raider tonight. It blew my mind. Okay, you’re all caught up. Some highlights of my first three hours.
Just from three hours of play, I can tell that Tomb Raider is the kind of game that SHOULD change the way companies make games, for the better. I’m paying attention, SE and Crystal Dynamics. You got me. This is how you reboot a series.
LARA: I’m not that kind of Croft.
ROTH: You are, you just don’t know it yet.
When I was a child, the neighbors across the street owned a trampoline. That made their house one of our local gathering points. We could hop on that trampoline for hours. Such a simple concept: you go up and you come back down and then you go up again but a little higher than before and, oh man, if everyone hit that trampoline at just the right moment, you went crazy soaring. Of course, our parents would often warn us of the dangers of falling off the trampoline and cracking our heads open or tell us horror stories about getting caught in the sides of the net and ripping our arms off but screw that we were flying.
Mega Jump creates in me that same feeling. Like a trampoline, the concept is simple. At the start of each level, a little monster (he kinda looks like a mix between a teddy bear and one of Rayman’s Rabbids) explodes from the bottom of the screen, launching himself high into the air, screaming gleefully like a silly child who has totally ignored all warnings about broken limbs. Soon enough, though, gravity kicks back in and the little guy starts to fall towards the bottom of the screen. If you can land him on a floating coin, he’ll bounce back, going higher than before. If you miss, he’ll fall to his death. Coins disappear after you’ve gone a certain distance above them, so you can’t count on a constant safety net. Them’s the basics. Get the monster through ten levels of this and realize his dream of jumping from the ground all the way into space. Reach for the stars, little guy; reach for the stars.
It’s simple yet damn addicting. To control the would-be-astronaut, you tilt the iphone left to right, which sends him careening towards either side of the screen. Push him off the screen and he reappears on the other side. Early on in a level, when coins are more plentiful, this leads to a lot of flailing around with the phone, passing the guy around the screen as much as possible to bounce off whatever he can. In fact, the speed of his horizontal maneuvering is based on how far you tilt the phone, so if you put the phone on its side, the little guy will go blindingly fast across the screen, highly decreasing his chance of missing any coins. Try this strategy for more than a second or two, though, and the game will call the metaphorical “tilt” and place a stack of unpassable anvils in your path. I actually recommend trying it out at least once; it’s pretty funny to see the little monster get such a sudden and unyielding smack down.
Really that strategy wouldn’t work for long, anyway. After surviving a level for half a minute or so, you’ll find things get way more difficult. Frustrating, or cheap, might be a better word. Rows of large coins are replaced with single piss-ant pennies that you have to be pretty damn precise to land on. Jerk-off coins start to actually flee as you try to land on them. Potions that look like power-ups shrink you down so you have to be even more precise. Pre-planning isn’t possible, either, since every time you play the game, the coin arrangement is randomized. You just have to hope for a good layout and be ready to react fast.
There’s some power ups to help you along the way, my favorite being some kind of star-balloon-thing which propels the monster up through a good chunk of the level while sparks fly out his bottom and he screams in pure delight. It’s rewarding, but chances are you’ll die as soon as it burns out, ‘cause you just got boosted to a tougher part of the level.
In this case, challenge is a tactic to get you to spend money on what is, ostensibly, a free game. See, by spending just a couple of dollars, you can load yourself up with points that you can trade in for things like “Save Stars” which essentially give you an extra life. Of course, each time you use a Save Star, it’s gone and you have to spend more money to purchase a new one. It’s ridiculous. It would be like if Resident Evil 5 made you pay Capcom a dollar each time you wanted to save. On the other hand, imagine how many players would then get so good at Resident Evil 5 that they could beat it without dying and in record time, just to spite the game company.
My Mega Jump experience has actually benefited from this. Save Stars are for pussies. A real gamer will hunker down in front of that iphone, do some wrist exercises, and get ready to whip out precision hand-eye coordination skills. Pay attention to the screen and adjust your tactics on the fly. Don’t get distracted by the colourful visuals in the background. Think of each coin as an opportunity. Weigh the cost of going for one over the other, then pick a coin and make that coin your target. Don’t take your eyes off it. To hit the coin you must put your intentions past the coin. To win in the future, you must be in the present. Take all of that advice and you’ll still probably fail. Remember, just because I’m recommending this game doesn’t make me responsible for any damage that your iphone occurs as a result of rage. Yeah, the game doesn’t pull any punches and sometimes wavers dangerously on the cheap side of challenging. Still, that makes it all the more fun when you do beat a level, despite the odds, and know that it had nothing to do with wussy Save Stars, but was all a result of your pure white-hot skill.
Mega Jump may only be initially free, depending on how strong your willpower is, but it never loses it’s simple fun factor. It’s a silly little game with a surprisingly engaging challenge factor that I can take with me to the office or whip out while waiting for friends to meet me at the bar. It’s nice to have a trampoline again.
There’s funny bad and there’s painful bad. And then there’s Vampires Until Dawn, which makes me feel like I got ripped off and it didn’t even cost me a full dollar. Vampires Until Dawn is to good what a stake in the heart is to continued living.
To its credit, the game opens with a sense of brooding intensity. The black and white artwork is stylishly offset by an occasional splash of red. The opening unvoiced narrative hints at the occult without ever mentioning the words. Vampires lurk in the shadows of the plot: the chair with its striking colour of blood, the gash mark in the neck of a dead wife that inspires the hero to track a similar set of murders to Mexico, and even that hero’s name, Mr. Garlik. I’ll admit, “Mr. Garlik” almost kills it for me, but campiness is staved off artfully by the musical mood; an echoing patter of piano music made up of that kind of barely-on-time not-quite-a-melody that can send your mind spinning instantly to thoughts of despair and rainfall. For an entire minute and a half, Vampires Until Dawn is a decent game. After that, the graphics turn into poorly animated polygons, the music becomes monotonous, and you’re tossed into the middle of a night-time arena to fend for your life against the damned of Mexico.
If I were generous enough to assign this game a genre, I would call it a top-down shooter, similar to Gauntlet in its concept, but horrible in its execution. Gauntlet gets old after a while, but at least the levels are interesting and each one is unique. Here, you don’t wander any dungeons or cool environments. Each level could fit on a single ipad screen and the setting goes beyond uninspired to feeling uncompleted (the first level is a dirt road with a fence). Enemies spawn in waves and you have to take them out with Mr. Garlik’s magical endless-ammo handgun. After each wave, you get some health and a new weapon. It’s basically an endurance run to see if you can make it through all the waves of a level. What happens after that I can’t tell you from personal experience but online videos strongly suggest that it’s more of the same in other stiflingly original levels (a dirt road without a fence).
Vampires Until Dawn is an experience where I’m actually happy to see the game-over screen because it means I’m done playing. I cannot beat the first level. Not because it’s a hard game to beat but because it’s a hard game to play. The controls in Vampire: Until Dawn are atrocious. It’s the kind of control scheme you absolutely do not ever want to see anyone produce on an iphone. Rather than create actual touch controls the designers went ahead and pasted two giant joysticks on the bottom corners of the iphone’s screen. I use the word corners here in the same way I would tell you to just keep an elephant in the corner of your studio apartment. So what if it’s big? It’s in the corner. Just put it out of your mind.
Touch shooters using the “twin stick” interface are not new, but I’m not partial to seeing it done. The left stick controls movement and the right aims and shoots your weapon. I get the concept, but it’s mindless. The iphone offers a touch screen, GPS systems, and gyro-controls that know how far it’s titled at any angle. With so many options available to developers, why create a system that’s like playing a normal game except with the controller held right against your face? It’s ridiculous. Resorting to pasting a controller on the screen is the worst kind of laziness. I’m going to call it uncreative ingenuity. It’s so uncreative it’s actually ingenious. Also, joysticks don’t control themselves. Something else has to be on the screen for them to work. Yeah, that’s right. THUMBS. Two giant thumbs blocking half the screen all of the time.
I don’t want people to think I despise this game just because of the dual sticks. Some people like the twin stick system and some games have done it well, such as Modern Combat. That was good because the control sticks were tucked away in the corner of the screen and were hardly distracting from the action, which was programmed to take place in areas where the sticks wouldn’t get in the way. Unlike in Vampire, it worked because it was subtle and the developers took it into account when designing the rest of the game. You cannot appreciate the system as it is slapped upon us here, where you have to jerk your thumb halfway across the screen to get the the game to recognize you are trying to move left.
In other news, I found a bunch of glitches within the first seven minutes. The first one you can recreate at home. Run to the top left corner of the screen. There’s some whitish-grey blob here that I think is supposed to be an overturned semi. Push up against that and don’t let go of your “joystick.” After a few seconds, you’ll start to magically rise into the air. Flying doesn’t help you, sadly. Enemies can still hit you, but you just shoot over their heads now. Keep doing it, though, and you’ll leap right over the edge of the map into an area of infinite blackness. Enemies will follow you for a short time here but they can’t stand the darkness for long. They will eventually sink down into the inky ooze and you’ll be left alone, to wander forever lost in what is suddenly a much better game than it once was. The other glitches are random and they aren’t as fun. They mostly involve the game not recognizing when you are trying to move the joysticks (AKA play the game).
To top it off, the action lags… badly. We’re talking about a game that looks like it could have come out of the N64 or, if I’m being very generous, the first Playstation. Certainly nothing newer than that and yet if you get more than seven enemies on the screen it slows down. This isn’t an iphone problem. I’ve been playing Final Fantasy Tactics on my iphone with no hint of lag and that’s a game with a lot of graphical stuff going on. There’s no excuse here.
And damn that music to hell.
Say the following with me, leaving a slight pause between each word: DUN DUN DUNT. Now pause. Do it again: DUN DUN DUNT. Pause. Again: DUN DUN DUNT. Pause. Congratulations. You’ve just completed singing the musically rich melody of Vampires Until Dawn. It’s as mindless as the design, the enemies, and everything else about the game.
DUN DUN DUNT Whoop, here comes some zombies. I think. I mean, they look like blobs of pixels, but they must be zombies because they are grey and hiss and moan in little goblin voices.
DUN DUN DUNT Oooh, here comes the dudes with the fedoras, the gangsters. The Italian gangsters in, uh, Mexico. Oh, no, they are shooting at me. Better use the long range weapon except I can’t select it because the game won’t detect my giant thumb.
DUN DUN DUNT Oh my god it’s bats, the most creative enemies on the planet. They are killing me with squeaks.
DUN DUN DUNT And here comes- actually I’ve never seen what comes after the bats because I lose all hope and let myself be killed. Like I said, I can’t be bothered to beat the first level. I enjoy a good challenge. I even have some tolerance for a challenge caused by questionable design choices. But I have no patience for a game without soul or style. Vampires Until Dawn is completely soulless. I don’t care to make it until dusk, let alone dawn. This isn’t funny bad. It’s just painful bad. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go erase it off my iphone.
In an age which seems obsessed with complicated plots, character leveling, and customizable weapons, Akane the Kunoichi is wonderfully old-school. There is no dialogue, you get seven hits per stage and cannot upgrade your life bar, and you use one weapon throughout the entire game. Why did we ever think sidescrollers needed more than that?
Originally developed for the Xbox Live Arcade, Akane the Kunoichi (which I think translates to “boob ninja”) features all the classic components of a good side scrolling challenge, much in the vein of Ninja Gaiden. Admittedly, Akane doesn’t use a sword as her form of attack. Following in the footsteps of many game heroines, she is a long ranged fighter, relying on an infinite amount of thrown knives to take down her enemies. She can grab a wall and jump from it, though, and like in Ninja Gaiden, it’s a technique you’ll have to master to get very far. Also like Ninja Gaiden, the game likes to punish you. Mistime a jump and you’ll most likely end up plummeting to your demise down a bottomless pit or land in the midst of red ninjas who can throw their own deadly knives. Most emasculating is when you miss a jump but grab onto a wall before you die. “Saved!” you may think, but no. There’s nowhere to jump to and nothing to do but watch Akane start to slowly slide down the wall to her doom.
Even with such moments, the game is utterly fair. It gives you everything you need in order to prevail. When you die, it’s not because there were too many enemies spawning all over the place or because getting hit knocked you back ten feet into a pit. If you die, it’s because you screwed up. That’s a great feeling. It’s great to know that you died because your plan of attack was too haphazard or you weren’t fast enough executing it. It’s great to know that you can come right back to the level, try harder, and have a chance at winning this time. This makes it a more approachable Ninja Gaiden, one that is satisfyingly challenging but which you can actually beat if you put your mind to it.
Oh, wait. Unless you’re playing it on an iphone.
At first glance, Akane the Large Breasted Warrior seems a wonderful choice for translation to the iphone. The short levels are the perfect length for sneaking in some “on-the-go” gaming. You can whip out the game while waiting at the bar for a beer and quickly take a stab at a level. And the sprites are large and colorful enough that you don’t feel like you lose anything on a smaller screen. In fact, the iphone’s advanced high definition screen is brighter and looks better than most televisions.
But controlling Akane on an iphone doesn’t deliver the experience that was intended by the developers. I’ve talked about the whole controller on a screen phenomenon before and why I don’t like it. Kunoichi adds another element to the discussion. One of the main problems with touch controls is that you cannot feel the buttons; there is no tactile sense. That might seem like a digressive complaint, but you don’t realize how much you come to rely on your fingers seeking out the button based on touch alone until you are really forced to use quick reflexes. In a tense moment (and there are many of them in Kunoichi), your fingers will grope madly for those virtual buttons and, while they will often end up in the general vicinity of one, that isn’t always good enough. It happens a lot with the “jump” and “shoot” buttons, which are right next to each other. Let me tell you, when you are trying to shoot an enemy, it’s usually the worst thing you can do to jump instead… and it’s never useful to shoot when you are trying to bridge a gap with a well-timed jump. This issue carried me to my death more than once. It also caused me to waste precious magic shots and to mumble angry, incomprehensible syllables at the waitress bringing me my beer.
On the other side of the screen, my thumb had a tendency to hit down when it was trying to hit left or right, causing Akane to come to a drifting halt in the middle of a couple epic chase scenes. Also, when I’d try to hit left or right, sometimes I’d end up hitting both of them, which would cause Akane to come to an immediate halt. It was worse if she was jumping, because she’d instantly lose all momentum and just fall like a rock. I became aware of how frustrating this could be very early on, against the game’s first boss, a giant Goblin Oni. This should have been an easy fight, once I figured out how to do it. The basic strategy involves wall jumping over the Oni’s head. But because my thumb kept slipping, Akane would often get stuck on the wall while the Oni just rammed her over and over. Or sometimes, mid-jump, I’d slip up and she’d stop and fall to the ground to be crushed to death beneath demon hooves.
What should have been a fun, if somewhat frantic, fight turned into pure frustration because of poor controls. Don’t even get me started on the later levels, where you’re expected to dodge spikes and lava, run against swift water currents, and use the wall jump prodigiously to avoid packs of ninjas and reach secret items.
I do recommend that you play Akane the Kunoichi. It’s a testament to the game’s design that I not only beat it on the iphone, I even went back and collected all the secret items in each level for the special ending. It’s a good game which really scratches that old-school perfect timing and quick response itch. I have trouble recommending that you play it on an iphone, however. One of the great things about Akane on the Xbox is that it was carefully constructed to test your reflexes yet be a surmountable challenge. That shows incredible care on the part of the developers, care which is sadly obscured in this port. Still a great game, but not the greatest way to play it.
What?! I actually have time to write again?!
The colors of .GREP’s scream were a splash of beauty across his vision..SORT had been impressed by .CAI’s display of power; he had gotten the idea that she wasn’t a fighter, but evidently that had not been a correct guess. More than this, he had been impressed by how fantastic it was to watch another Ghost in action. He had never imagined it could be this way. He had thought that every Ghost would affect the Planes in much the same way he did, with the same patterns and the same artist’s brush, and now he was discovering how wonderful being wrong could be. He saw every detail of .CAI’s manipulation of her energy shield, the way she sent her thoughts through it, tightening it here and there, turning it into a net piece by piece. It was a careful movement, calculated; and yet it only took the span of a few seconds to come together. He felt nothing for the Wraiths which she caught in her trap. None of the vibrancy of life flowed in them. They were made up of dead, black matter, lacking all of the vibrancy of .CAI’s brilliant shift of blue static. He thought he could see images in that swirl of tints. Their high pitched whistles were just that: sounds displeasing to the ear. .GREP’s scream was a living object that went shifting like a frightened snake down into the darkness of the tunnels. .SORT watched it go with fascination, and saw with equal fascination the sonic path of .GREP’s bullet as it flared past him, the man’s aim knocked off course by the //RAT which now gripped his leg in its fangs. .SORT almost casually decided to try and do his own part to stop this attack. He turned toward their enemy, and pointed his arm toward the creature; his energy flared a brighter green as he projected his will toward it. Then he spoke his order, trying to impose his command on the creature: “Sleep.”
Everything in the GHOST world was hostile. But things didn’t usually come this well-prepared. Thoughts and possibilities collided with each other in .GREP’s mind and spilled
they’re countering us. We’ve been set up. Controlled retreat, but take it slow—advancing toward .SOURCE’s known position might be a trap. If we can find a branch in the tunnels as we advance, we might be able to flank them
over telepathically to the rest of the group. Probably whatever was coming heard it, too, but there was no point in masking his thoughts. Things were about to get loud. Walking slowly backward, .GREP kept his sight trained on the bend in the tunnel. If nothing else, maybe he could thin them out a little before they got to close combat range. He risked one quick look behind him to see .CAI was, as usual, taking her own approach to things. She had planted her feet in a fighter’s pose and her Ghost’s usual sky-blue color had paled so that she seemed to be see-through. The energy structures that made up her form were like a visible nervous system, with pulsating clusters around the brain and the heart.
From down the tunnel came an odd sound.
While he took his place in the formation, as .GREP had ordered, .SORT couldn’t help but question what was really going on and whether it was some kind of test meant for his benefit. He was relatively new to being a Ghost—at least, in respect to the rest of this team—and there wasn’t enough evidence here to convince him that this experience was as new to them as it was to him. If this was a test, that was slightly amusing. If not, then unsettling; this coven was supposed to be one of the best around, and one thing he did know from experience was that the being the best always got you more, stronger enemies. He wondered whether he was going to get himself killed by fault of having joined the wrong crowd. As soon as he thought it, he couldn’t but keep a smile from his face (or what passed for one here on the Planes). As if he had not been risking exactly the same thing much of his life anyway.
He noticed the thin barrier erecting itself around them. That had to be the girl, .CAI. He relished the way the barrier formed, the way the vibrations of her energy subtly reverberated into the air at just the right frequency to create the shield, which he could perceive through a combination of senses that he had still no words to describe, and which his brain processed as a mixture of tints and hue variations. The Ghost World was an art gallery to him; more than that, it was the paintings in the art gallery. It was being in those paintings. It was art itself. Every little action made on the Planes he detected as an incredible stroke of a brush held by an unbearably skilled hand.
“Well it’s definitely a goddamn Monday,” .CAI said dryly. “Someone see something I don’t?”
Her words were splash of color to his senses. In the real world, he would have kept to himself, just waiting to see what was going on here—he still wasn’t sure that the situation hadn’t been engineered to test him—but being on the Planes, where every action was so meaningful, his own emotions became twisted and harder to read. He felt himself compelled to talk, for no other reason than to ground himself.
“I think we’ll see something very soon,” he said, thinking to himself that he was in on the joke. He couldn’t help but push it further: “Excuse me, but as the new guy, I have to ask… do any of you have the slightest idea who could have done this to us?”
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