Because even thoughts need a place to rest.

21st October 2013

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Mass Effect: Citadel

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I seem to come to everything late (except Lindsey Stirling: I was all over that long before anyone else). The final DLC for Mass Effect, Citadel, was announced only a month or two after my first (and currently only) complete run-through of Mass Effect. I intended to play it then. I wanted to play it then. But I didn’t. I don’t know if I was ready, to be honest. It may sound saccharine, but I’d just said goodbye to Shepard, her lover (in my case, Liara), and my favorite members of the Normandy—some of whom had been with me now through three games and nearly a hundred hours of intense gameplay and decision branches. I wasn’t sure there was much more that needed to be said.

So months went by and I didn’t really think about Citadel much, though I had downloaded it (almost out of a sense of duty to do so). Occasionally one of two Mass Effect songs that I had put on my itunes (the menu music from the first game and the “Once and For All” music from the final ending) would play and I would feel a sudden pang to revisit Shepard and her crew, but I always managed to turn away from the thought. Somehow it just didn’t feel like the right time.

Understand: Mass Effect really affected me. I’ve talked about the ups and downs of the series in my “journal” of the saga, pointing out things like the missed opportunities to give the players difficult choices that meet that standard of moment like Kaiden/Ashley or Mordin/Genophage. I’ve discussed at length some of the occasional gameplay issues, too (especially in the first game), how the second’s game story was lacking, how the third game has a really boring and awful system of fetch quests, and how throughout the series certain missions are just clearly not as well thought out as others (though ME2 did have the best missions all around).

But despite all of that, Mass Effect remains one of the most affective gaming experiences I’ve ever had and one in which I really did feel like I’d built a unique character who I knew I understood differently than someone else who might play the game—in fact, I’d verified this in conversation with friends. We all had trouble talking about Mass Effect symbolically, because our Shepards were all quite different and handled things in different way. Even for those of us who’d made similar decisions, we couldn’t agree on why Shepard had made those decisions. Different stories and different intepretations of the character had led us to those moments and choices, and the amazing thing is: we were all correct at once. The developers created an amazing sandbox, a sandbox for storytelling, and left things open for players to fill without making Shepard and co’s dialog bland.

A revisiting of the ending

Okay, so with all that, I’m basically saying it took me a while to get to Citadel. I was further stymied when I realized I didn’t save after beating the game and now had to beat it again in order to access pre-cerberus material (AKA the DLC materials). This created an interesting situation. I was able to revisit the ending months after I’d last seen it, with none of my previous emotions now present. What I mean is, there was some separation this time and I was able to see things a little differently.

Like, GODDAMN but it takes a long time to actually get to the ending. There’s some slow walking, then some slow talking, then some more slow talking, then some kid shows up, then more slow talking, then more slow walking, and FINALLY the last cinematic plays.

Now, the music is brilliant throughout. Aces there. I actually think it’s a big reason why the ending moved me the first time. But there are a few specific things I do feel I have to complain about in general. I’m not going into much detail, because these things have been talked to death. But I know some people were a little put off by my utter acceptance of the ending on my first and I think I owe it to at least give a shout out to the annoyances I did have:

1) The Illusive Man. What the hell is with this guy? He comes in at the end, gives a ridiculous supervillain speech that takes way. too. long. and then dies. What happened to this guy as a villain? For that matter, where did Harbinger go? No, I’ll say it again: WHERE THE HELL DID HARBINGER GO? I think what I’m really bemoaning here is the lack of a final encounter with someone of some substance. The Illusive Man isn’t a great final villain because he’s pretty much defeated himself… and he’s being controlled by Harbinger anyway. So where’s Harbinger? Why don’t you get to banter words with him again or fly the Normandy up his fallopian tubes? Something, anything. I miss Saren. That was a villain you could hate the whole game and damn it felt good to fight him at the end. Harbinger was set up to be the villain in ME:2 and then just sort’ve wasn’t. Don’t know what happened to him in ME:3.

2) The kid. Okay, yes, the kid. Nothing else really needs to be said. DLC content (Leviathan and the Extended Cut) do a good job of fixing the cannon, but it is still annoying to have some kid show up and TALK MORE after you’ve just listened to the Illusive Man talk his ass off. That’s all I’ll say.

3) The directors REALLY wanted you to choose the Synthesis ending. I didn’t, on my first run. My Shepard was a “do what you came to do” kind of gal. She came to blow up the Reapers, and so that’s what she did. It felt like a good ending for me, right up to where Shepard takes a “still alive” breath in the ruins of the Citadel. This time I went for synthesis and… holy shit, my ending was twice as long, it felt like. I saw a lot more of the characters, there were more nods to what happens after the world is united in synthetic glory, and overall everything seemed happier and less grim. Some people said this happened with Liara, too; that one of the reasons I enjoyed Mass Effect’s ending was because I was with Liara and the whole game is sort’ve built for that. If so, this would just be an extension of that syndrome.

***

So where does this leave us? Well, my thoughts on the ending are that I still think the ending is good. It wraps up an epic story while keeping a touch of tragedy and, while I wouldn’t have minded some kind of simple ending where you just win and go home, I have had trouble coming up with a “replacement” ending for the series. I can’t really think of one, just little things, like I would’ve liked a real twist to the ending (the game is lacking in twists, overall) and maybe even a chance for Shepard to survive and go home with insert romantic interest.

Regardless, the way the ending was handled was not fair to the fans because it didn’t take your choices into account. I get that now. So going into Citadel I did have one clear desire: I wanted my choices to matter. I really wanted to know that there was a reason to play through Mass Effect again, as a different character.

My run through Citadel’s “Mission”

I don’t know that there’s much to talk about as far as the actual Citadel mission goes. It was certainly a fun scenario; I’ll admit the clone actually surprised me and made me a little giddy. I guessed Maya was a traitor before it happened, but still enjoyed the character a lot—though I was thrown by one rather weird line that comes in in the final cutscene involving her. Maya says “I’ll be happy to cooperate.” Shepard says “Maya. I know that voice.”

Huh? What does she mean she “knows that voice?” My first thought was that it had been so long since I’d played ME that this was a character I’d forgotten about. I thought about the accent and wondered if it was Miranda’s sister—even watched the rest of the scene believing that until I realized that would be ridiculous. Turns out Maya is from random ME comic (ugh to cross-over-media, I’m not a big fan) but even then Shepard doesn’t meet her in the comic. So my only guess is that Shepard means “I know that’s your lying voice,” in which case this script needed an editor because that’s a terribly confusing line.

Anyway, it becomes quickly clear that the aftermath is what Citadel was built for—as a DLC, not a space station. As soon as I got back to my apartment, I had messages waiting from everyone. Now, keep in mind I saved everybody in Mass Effect 2, though you may remember, Wrex did not survive Mass Effect 1 for me, so that was out. Also, I missed Kasumi’s Mass Effect 3 mission and so she was unavailble. Then, too,   everyone’s favorite Singing Salarian Scientist did not survive my playing of Mass Effect 3, but that’s still a lot of emails and invites to go through.

This is where I grew most impressed with Citadel. The sheer variety of events was fun to think about. And once again, the writing seemed on par in a way it hadn’t for those final stages of the game’s main story. Everything once again felt tailored to MY story.

For instance, I’m sure that Liara can be invited over in everyone’s playthrough and each one probably involves the piano (I’ll be REALLY impressed if it changes so that even that is different). Obviously, my encounter with her ended on a more romantic and even somber note (every time Shepard promises Liara they’ll be together after the war, my heart about breaks).

On the other hand, Garrus and Shepard shared a scene that clearly spoke to the long very non-sexual comraderie I’d built up with him. I helped play wingman for him while he picked up a Tourian chick at the bar. I’m pretty sure this isn’t what someone would get who had romanced him.

And those are two obvious examples. What about someone who had romanced Jack? Or Jacob (now married with kids, in my playthrough)? Or Thane? I’ve heard Thane can actually reappear in spirit form if he was romanced and stayed faithful, too. That sounds utterly heartbreaking. I just wonder how far they took this…

Conclusion

… and I guess that’s the point of Citadel. It’s funny, but it is this DLC that I would be willing to play the game again for, to see what changes and how the mood feels different at the end. I would play it again more for that then to see what changes in the final earth scenes (because I already know the answer there: not much).

I don’t know that people will ever be satisfied with the main Mass Effect ending. I don’t know that they can be. Completely aside from how it ties up the story, the ending is mired. Whether because of poor writing, too large of expectations, or a lack of adherence to the diversity of player’s choices, the ending has its issues. It doesn’t matter anymore, though. Citadel is the ending that players have wanted.

No, it doesn’t change what happens to Shepard or the Reapers, or add any more explanation as to how events unfold or what happens after the war is over. In fact, it has next to nothing to do with the final battle at all—Mass Effect Citadel is focused almost entirely on the past, and I believe that’s what players wanted.

This is a massive nod to every relationship you’ve nurtured and many of the choices you’ve made surrounding them. Every character can make an appearance, every character can get featured. The big party which taps off Citadel is a new ending in itself, a final celebration of the series. Shepherd and her crew stand outside of the Normandy at the end of Citadel and comment on how it’s been a hard road, but a good one. “At least we managed to throw one hell of a party,” Shepard concludes.

And doesn’t that summarize it all? Six years and three epic games, each with their problems here and there but undeniably a fantastic and emotionally affecting ride. I feel with this DLC over, I was able to say goodbye to Shepard, and finally conclude my playthrough of Mass Effect.

… now I’m going to go start a MALE Shepard. No, I won’t be journaling it ;)

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

19th September 2013

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GTAV: Second Session

"Listen, go to college, get a degree so you can rip people off and get paid for it. It’s called capitalism."

So. First a shout out. GTAV made $800 million dollars yesterday. That is exactly enough money to buy my entire net worth sixteen thousand times. I’m up for sale, Rockstar.

Anyway, second session. 

I thought this was going to be a complaining post. My second session of GTA:V began with me having already forgotten most of the controls. Why? Because they keep changing! There’s different controls for driving, walking around, shooting people, shooting while driving, playing golf, hailing taxis, swimming, swimming underwater, jet skiing, buying weapons… I mean, it gets a little ridiculous at times. It’s almost like every activity has its own control scheme. Even certain vehicles, like the bicycle, have a completely different set of controls from regular driving.

At first I was going to complain about this. But then something happened. It happened while I was playing my first golf game in GTAV (I ended with a -2 score after nine holes, felt pretty decent about that). Of course the controls were something completely new. And I mean EVERY BUTTON ON THE CONTROLLER did something new.

And you know what? God help me, but I liked it.

GTA:V is a variety show. It’s a hundred games in one wonderful package. This isn’t old news, it’s felt like this in the series since San Andreas, but I would argue that this is the first time it’s been done right. And the controls are a part of that. Having to learn a new game every time I play actually helps to keep things fresh. When I’m playing golf, I’m not in GTA playing golf… I’m playing a golf game. Straight up. For the first time in the series, the extra mini games have actually been given the attention necessary to make them their own games and not just add-ons that aren’t as fun as Wii Sports. Similarly with the differences between, say, riding a motorcycle and a bicycle. It changes how I interact (literally, how I interact) with the game world, and that’s great. It also means that it takes different playing skills to be good at drive-by shootings than it does to be good at shooting from cover. I’m not just playing a hundred games here: I’m learning a hundred games, and if there is one thing the human mind enjoys (believe it or not) it’s learning new skills. GTA is a playground for learning skills.

Unlike GTA:IV, the mini games in GTA:V haven’t felt forced down my throat. Yeah, Franklin can call up Michael’s kid if he wants to go see strippers with him, but you can also completely ignore this and not feel like you’re missing out on story or betraying the character.

Speaking of which, I’ve decided Michael is my new favorite GTA character ever. I’ve given him long hair and a scruffy beard, so that he’ll look like Joel from Last of Us (it works, too: he REALLY looks like Joel) which just makes this all the more awesome when he’s trying to have a relationship with his kids. Which is brilliant. What a brilliant thing to work into a GTA game: a criminal who has a wife and kids. And it’s great, because the more bad-ass he is, the more his kids hate him. Favorite thing of today was him swimming out to a porna ship to grab his daughter away from the pornographers. After saving her, she says with valley girl style “You’ve ruined my life, Dad.”

Genius.

Aside from this, there are a lot of little touches I’m enjoying. The underwater segments are beautiful, I love the “google map” effect when you switch characters, I really enjoyed ending up in a stolen police car during one of these switch ups, and I actually started to get comfortable enough in the game world to start sandboxing my own high speed chases against the police.

The police are back! They made such a lackaluster effort in GTA:IV. I could just pull into an empty alley and get a sandwich and all was good. It’s kind’ve like that here for 1 or 2 stars, but holy shit—3 stars is intense! Once that chopter gets on you and you’ve got six or seven police cars on your ass, it’s not easy getting away. I haven’t had a car catch on fire and explode like the old days, but cars start handling incredibly poorly once they take enough damage—which is not only more realistic, it’s a way more intense effect on the gameplay. For one thing, when my car used to catch on fire and turn into a moving bomb, it was really easy to bail on it and send it carooming into a pile of police cars, killing everyone instantly and clearing the path for a few precious seconds while you made a get away.

But damn, when I can’t corner anymore because my car’s tires are gone, or can only go ten miles an hour because the engine has been totally shot to hell, that makes my options officially shitty. I tried to escape one three star by driving out into the country, but I barely left the city limits before I was surrounded and shot through the windshield by a dozen policemen.

Sometime soon I’ll have to try and get to four stars and see how far I can make it.

Tagged: GTAV playthrough

17th September 2013

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Grand Theft Auto V: Introduction

I first played GTA when it was a top down, run from the cops and hit as many pedestrans as you can, kind of game. I really enjoyed it, though the simplicity and repetitiveness of the game wore it out pretty quick. I was in sixth grade, and addicted to JRPGs at the time. With offerings like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV up for offer, a game which basically seemed to hark back to the old arcade standards of “get as much points as you can each mission” just didn’t have staying power. Where was the story? Where were the characters? What was the point?

Jump forward to my first year in college. GTA:III hits the shelves and totally blows us away as gamers. Really, there hadn’t been anything like GTA:III before. Open world games had always fallen pretty specifically into the RPG genre (especially the Western RPG, like Elder Scrolls and Ultima). There had NEVER been an action game that qualified as open world until GTA:III came onto the scene. It played with the action genre, as well, turning the action itself into a sandbox kind of action. Sure there were missions with lots of nice set pieces, but I know I spent many more hours in the game creating my OWN mayhem and my OWN missions.

Many more games would follow in the series and I stayed fairly current with them. I’ve at least played all of the main games in the series, though of the side stories I only played Chinatown (on the PSP: which I really enjoyed for its successful return to the top down view).

I really enjoyed Vice City (up till now, it’s been my favorite of the games). It was basically GTA:III improved—it had motorcycles and a character who actually talked, without losing any of the emphasis on fast driving and tense flights from cops and gangsters.

San Andreas is often hailed as the best of the series. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Vice City. I was a little overwhelmed by all of the new options in the game and tentative about a few of them, like the dating, which felt really derivative. I also didn’t quite know what to think of the main character. San Andreas was the first time that Rockstar went with a sympathetic hero and it was an odd choice for the series. The writing in GTA is always top-notch (and somewhat under-appreciated, I think, because it gets overshadowed in the media by the violence and sex). I really liked CJ as a character. But there was a definite break in the connection when CJ would be talking in a cutscene about doing the right thing and bringing his family back together… only to run out at my command and murder strippers for their pocket change.

Still, San Andreas was a BLAST. I especially enjoyed the gang wars and have been disappointed that they never made a comeback in any of the future games (maybe they’ll be in GTA:V?)

I really disliked GTA:IV. I found it to be one of the most boring games in my PS3 collection. I just felt like everything that I liked about GTA had been dumbed down: you didn’t run from cops anymore, you HID from them; you had to drive long distances to get to missions, often only to die and have to do the drive AGAIN; and a good chunk of the game was now focused on the derivative aspects, like taking your cousin out for burgers. And why was everything suddenly so serious? GTA:III was like a Steven Segal film. GTA:IV acted like it wanted to be the Godfather, or Eastern Promises. Nikko Belic was put in an even stranger place than CJ, because he directly talks about how much he hates killing. That was a little less impactful when delivered on the tail end of my joy-riding drunkenly through the city, chucking grenades out of the window BECAUSE I COULD.

It is with this background that I have entered the world of GTA:V. I’ve been hoping for more Guy Ritchie and less Martin Scorsese out of this installment, more of the humor from the earlier games and less of the cold grey landscape that became Liberty City in GTA:IV. I’ll be going through like I did for my Mass Effect playthrough and keeping a log of each time I play, at least until I beat the main missions.

So far, I’ve only clocked about forty minutes (a little test) and in that time I’ve gotten my characters shot at, engaged in a high speed cop chase (for that first driving segment, I chose the white car, btw), got stoned (laced with PCP, it seemed like), gotten a completely new haircut, and watched a Space Marine parody where a Marine has a dream fantasy about massively gay fucking his space commander. Which was awesome. I especially like the satirical moment when he is woken by his commander and quickly claims that he was dreaming of “Women. And bacon. And women covered in bacon.” I laughed. And that’s something I haven’t really done with GTA since San Andreas.

It’s good to be back in this hood.

Tagged: GTAV playthrough

11th September 2013

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A little happy story

I want to tell everyone a little story; long post.

Last Friday, it was a long day at work. I work out of the state, so I have to commute. It was a hour long commute to go seven miles… that’s part of the story, involving how messed up the bus system is in NE Portland. We’ll get to that in a sec.

Anyway, I was exhausted by the time I got off the bus. It wasn’t a bad ride: there were these wonderful black highschoolers on the bus, talking up a storm (and reminding me how badly Portland needs more of the african-american culture to grace our city), and they pretty much kept me entertained the whole way.

I got to my stop, and stood up. I had two bags with me (bag for work, and a bag of groceries) and immediately the bus driver started yelling at me to get moving. I thought I saw something grey drop off the bus seat, out of the corner of my eye, but I was so tired and under pressure from the driver that I ignored it. I had everything I was sure.

As soon as I was off the bus, I realized what I didn’t have anymore: my touch kindle.

Now, keep in mind, a Kindle is not like leaving your wallet on the bus, or a baby, or a bag of drug money. It’s replaceable (with one-day delivery if you have Amazon Prime) and fairly cheap, but that Kindle has been with me a long time and I’ve grown attached to it. And I didn’t want to leave it on the bus, anyway, who would?

So I turned and hit the door, but the bus driver left. I began to sprint. With a backpack and a bag of groceries, in jeans and walking shoes, I sprinted after that bus, keeping pace with it for seven blocks. Seriously, I thought I was in worse shape than that. I was pounding on the windows the whole time, and yelling, but the bus driver didn’t stop. Well, once he did, a block away at the bus stop, and then took off as soon as I got there.

Finally, he gears it and just goes and no amount of willpower can keep me up with him anymore. I’m still running, now more out of disbelief and desperation than anything else, when a voice says “hey, you want to slow down.”

What an asshole! I think. Doesn’t this guy know I’m chasing a library of 3500 books right now? He’s a kind of dumpy guy, with glasses and a great smile, the kind of guy I’d love to have at one of my monthly game sessions. Just looks like a nice, nerdy guy. And in his hand is my kindle.

Turns out, those black girls saw me running for the bus and told the driver that I’d left my kindle. When the driver refused to stop, this nerdy, wonderful guy said he’d get off and walk it back to me. And so he had.

I offered him all the cash in my pocket (about forty bucks) for his kindness, but he turned it down, so instead I walked with him for a few blocks and shared (a little out of breath, I’ll admit) all the adventures I’d had with that Kindle: rock climbing at Mount St. Helens; getting lost along the Willamette; walking back downtown from the airport; camping at Mt. Hood Kiwanis Camp.

And then we parted ways, both of us satisfied.

21st June 2013

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Marketing to the End-User, not the End-Product, musings on a candy bar

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Yesterday I was in a grocery store when a stack of carefully arranged candy bars caught my eye. This was a local, organic grocery store, so of course the chocolate was not Hershey’s. Instead each bar fell into one of the two categories you normally find at local, organic stores: incredibly expensive, gourmet; and unusual, independent.

It was to the unusual and independent that I turned first. Not because I was looking for sugar, but because I was looking for something to prove a trend I’ve noticed in marketing lately. It’s a trend I call marketing to the end-product, instead of the end-user. I think it’s a mistake, and I did find my evidence of it among those independent candy bars. Here’s some salient points about it:

  1. It was a chile spiced bar (so far, so good)
  2. It was an independently made, organic chocolate bar (fine)
  3. It was called “Do Not Eat this Chocolate Bar” (again, fine)
  4. It had a picture on the front that looked remarkably like the “Y U NO?” face, screaming in agony, his bad teeth exposed, and the word “Chocolate” placed indelicately so that it looked like two of the letters were boogers hanging out of his nose (and here we run into trouble)

If you’ve been following my parentheticals, you can see that I think most of the vision for this candy bar was solid. An independent (though increasingly popular) flavor from an independent chocolate company, adopting an independent and fun name. So why does this vision result in packaging that is so antithetical to universal aesthetics around the desire to eat food? In other words, how did the cover image end up being such a turn off?

I should note, this isn’t the only aggressively named candy bar from this company. Another one, cheekily called “the Most Awesome Candy bar EVER” (complete with full caps) comes in a soft-gold colored wrapper, with wisps of delicate reds and oranges worked into the design. It’s incredibly appealing, yet doesn’t take away from the tongue-in-cheek nature of the candy’s name, a name that could have easily lent itself to all sorts of internet meme art for its cover.

I haven’t contacted the makers of this candy bar to get the full scoop on how this piece of (what I consider to be atrocious) packaging came about, but I believe the answer lies in marketing to the end-product, rather than the end-user. It’s not just in candy bars, either. I actually first encountered this in publishing. I’ve seen an incredible number of book covers which seem to have been conceived out of a desire to create a specific kind of product, rather than appeal to a specific customer. I’m not immune, here; I’ve done this, too. I think all marketers and designers do, at some point. The problem comes from the fact that we have too often looked at a product, seen that it sells, and have said “hey, independent books/candy sell, so we have to make our book/ghost-chilie-candy-bar look SUPER independent.”

What this approach overlooks is that, while independence has a look, that look is actually not so different from the mainstream. all you have to do to prove this is pick any genre of book, find the most mainstream book of the genre, and then compare its cover to the vast majority of the independent selections in that genre. You’ll see a lot of similarities. If you are feeling peckish, try it with independent chocolate at a grocery store. There are trends you’ll quickly notice (the gourmet indie chocolate tends to look more like Ghirardelli than Mr. Good Bar, for instance) and overall you’ll see that the main formula doesn’t change much.

This is because human desire for a product is based off a simpler set of triggers than we sometimes want to believe. In short, there are certain rules that dictate what makes us feel hungry, or sad, or eager, or excited. They aren’t the same for everyone, by any means, but they hold more and more true the larger your group becomes. So if you question an individual in detail about what makes him pick up a candy bar, your responses might be incredibly unique. But broaden the scope and seek less details and more generalities, and you will find that, out of 100 people, 90% find brown and black more appealing colors on a chocolate bar than blue and green. And if the bar has peanuts or honey in it, yellow suddenly jumps to the most popular color. And, oddly enough, blue can actually jump to the top as well, if the bar contains certain mixtures of nuts or has any kind of berry flavoring.

What might such data tell us, as marketers? Ironically, this broad view can often get us to consider a more specific type of user. For instance, what is an “independent chocolate bar buyer?” That’s a pretty difficult thing to define, partially because it is so broad. But can we identify the kind of user who likes HOT AND SPICY candy? Do certain trends emerge in those user tastes and preferences for packaging? Now we are no longer trying to create an independent product, we are trying to appeal to the user who likes spicy things. And in doing so, we can better define and target our audience.

For instance, assuming I had infinite resources, I could immediately create for you, right now, a successful candy bar package. We’ll call it the “Ain’t yo Candy Bar,” though most of our end-users will end up referring to it as the “Mr. T bar,” because the whole front of the chocolate wrapper is a picture of Mr. T, pointing accusingly at the user and yelling the name of the candy bar. The color beyond that will be either a light blue or a very light brown (depending on flavor).

This candy bar would be a quick success, because we aren’t trying to market to an end-product. Instead, we’ve chosen a type of user (the large fanbase of Mr. T) and have marketed directly to that. Our product isn’t secondary—in fact, the longevity of our success will be directly based off of how good this candy bar actually is, based on reviews of that first wave of end users—but we aren’t marketing to it; we’re marketing to a user. It is easier to convince someone to buy a chocolate bar with Mr. T on it then it is to convince them that your chocolate bar is the epitome of greatness and THAT’S why they should buy it.

… and if you think the chocolate bar I’ve pictured at the front of this post looks delicious, then it is simply proof that, despite simple desires, when we consider the individual opinion, we become a highly varied species. It’s a fact to take joy in, but it does not negate the fact that, when it comes to making quick buying decisions, we lose some of this individuality and tend to fall in line with what the general data tells us. This isn’t a fault. In fact, it is a defense mechanism for our incredibly busy and information filled lives. If we didn’t have ways to quickly make decisions, we would be locked in a catatonic state very quickly.

Tagged: marketing

4th June 2013

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.SORT’s Story

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You know how I know school is about over? Because I’ve started writing again. After finishing chapter five of “Two Sides of Midnight,” I took a long break from the project in order to focus on finishing my last term and also to do some soul searching about where I wanted to go next. I liked what I had written, but I was feeling a little bored with the characters already, and I realized (after consideration) that it was because I hadn’t given them enough of a history or anything to really do except freak out about their situation in the early chapters. I was happy with the way the team was working and had been established, but now I needed to explore deeper the individuals.

So that’s chapter six. I’m taking one of the characters and going into the past for a while. Then I’ll jump back to the present and resolve the current situation. I had played around with doing this idea before and figure it is going to be a stylistic theme throughout the story, but I hadn’t expected to do it so soon!

Anyway, here’s a little peek at what I’m doing…

He let the smoke from his cigarette drift slowly from his mouth, momentarily distracting himself from the bar across the street. He thought he was probably the only person in Purgatory—hell, maybe in Midnight—who didn’t smoke for the high. Cigarettes had little effect on him physically, good or bad: he neither coughed his lungs out nor felt the blanket of calm his peers described. He just liked watching the smoke come out of his mouth. He thought it looked cool, and he liked being able to control it, like living art.

As the smoke dissipated, he returned his gaze to the bar. It was a double story structure that still managed to looked squat and stunted, and was squashed into a thin block next to five or six other shops of dubious quality. Their windows were dark. Kai couldn’t tell what business went on there during the day. One looked like a pet shop, another an antique store, but he didn’t really care. His attention was focused on the one place that was lit up, the “Libary.” It was supposed to be clever, he assumed. The idea was to have a bar mimicking a library, featuring floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with books. The servers dressed severely, like the stereotyped image of librarians, and the literal bar was an actual library’s front desk, one of those huge, immovable wooden monstrosities. Someone had moved this one, though. Way Kai had heard it, it had been jacked from some abandoned library in a periphery dead zone. The books, too. Apparently there were boxes and boxes of the things in a warehouse somewhere. So many that the owner of the Libary didn’t try to keep track if customers were occasionally walking out with them. Anyway, you didn’t have to steal the books: the bar doubled as an actual goddamn library. Really, with library cards and accounts and all that. No late fees, though. In a place where there may be no tomorrow and even the near past seems forever ago, there didn’t seem to be a point.

Kai didn’t care about books. Reading bored him, and made him sad in a way he couldn’t quite place. Books hadn’t brought him there in the past, and books hadn’t brought him here tonight. He was here for a girl. He pressed his cigarette against a dilapidated street lamp until the butt went dark and deposited it into his jacket pocket, in case he wanted to light up again later. Then he walked across the street, towards the antique-looking door that led into the Libary.

Tagged: Two Sides of Midnight

21st May 2013

Post

I realized I was being judged before I even opened my mouth…

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.

21st May 2013

Post

A trick Mass Effect missed

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….

Tagged: mass effect playthrough

26th April 2013

Post

The continuing job scandal

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.

Tagged: job search

26th April 2013

Post

Goodbye, Job Search Sites


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.

Tagged: job search

21st April 2013

Post

Just Typed

.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.

Tagged: just typedTwo Sides of Midnightghost

23rd March 2013

Post

Just Typed

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.

Tagged: just typedTwo Sides of Midnight

20th March 2013

Post

Interview with Aaron Reed of Blue Lacuna

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!

17th March 2013

Post

Just Typed

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.

Tagged: just typedTwo Sides of Midnight

7th March 2013

Post with 2 notes

Tomb Raider (play day 1)

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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.

  1. There’s this point where you first get to realize just how large the island you’re on is. Admittedly this isn’t the size of a Grand Theft Auto and nowhere near the size of Skyrim but it feels so much larger simply because every area has been given intimate attention. It’s all in the details, and no two places are the same, which makes things feel infinitely bigger than the other titles I’ve mentioned. And it’s not just the island, but even the relics you can pick up and spin around or zoom in to look at details and find more things for Lara to comment on. The detailing is incredible.
  2. … and of course, I love that this environment is packed with things to find and challenges to complete. It reminds me of the old days of 3D exploration games, like Banjo Kazooie, Super Mario 64, or Gex: Enter the Gecko; because you wanted to explore every corner of those worlds, not just to see what was there, but because the game gave you active reasons to do so. You cannot get all the stars in SMB64 without seeing everything in the gameworld. Following the musical notes in Banjo Kazooie led you into every crevice and hidden area. Getting all the remote controllers in Gex meant you went to the very ends of each stage and got to really experience the full breadth of what the developers wanted you to see.
  3. … in Tomb Raider, this exploration is backed up by a real need to use your brain. The game doesn’t follow the annoyances of past TR titles and put up abstract puzzles in the way of your every move towards progress, but if you want to get 100% completion, you are really going to have to think about how you can reach out of the way areas, and it usually involves the use of either VERY IMPRESSIVE fire effects, or thinking about physics.
  4. … and the rewards for pushing yourself to do this exploration are a deeper understanding of the story. My favorite thing is finding those journals and figuring out everyone’s back story. Mostly because it’s well written.
  5. … and so is Lara, for that matter. This is a very mature adventure and any one who was afraid about Lara being just another female vehicle for fan service or a damsel in distress (with the player as her savior—I should do a post about that sometime in gamer psychology) will be impressed by the amount of depth she’s been given and how humanized she is (including her bust, it’s normal size. Maybe a little perky, but I think that’s mostly because she spends a lot of time breathing rapidly after near-death encounters). Really, this is a pretty cool story about the creation of an Indiana Jones, or a James Bond. Lara is a survivor and this game is taking her through not just the physical action of surviving, but the emotional scarring that goes along with it.
  6. … which brings me to the atmosphere. I didn’t expect to have the game deliver the kind of atmosphere I mostly associate with survival horror. And I’m pleased to see it’s not just in frightening imagery (though there is plenty of that). It’s in the actual events where I said “oh shit” all the time. The game developers have found a way to consistently make things worse, and make them worse in a primal way that is very disturbing. Just little things, like the simple act of seeing Lara shivering with cold, are placed at the exact right moments to have a huge effect on the player. And every time Lara finds someone only to lose them again, it doesn’t feel contrived: it feels destabalizing.
  7. … and that will have us end with pacing. This is the lesson that games should be taking from cinema, if they really want to come off feeling like a high quality film. Tomb Raider reads my mind and knows exactly when I’ve had enough drama and need some good ol’ fashioned shooting and is very careful about when to break that off and feed me more atmosphere and more story. It’s damn impressive, from setting up frightening encounters with wolves, to getting my blood pumping right before a shoot out, to giving me a trigger-break and making me get cerebral with a puzzle or two. It’s amazing the difference it makes between a game like this and, for instance, Max Payne 3. Both had fantastic graphics and gameplay, but Tomb Raider is the more fun game because it is paced out so much better. Even Uncharted 2 can’t hold a candle to this. I can only play so much UC before I’m burnt out and need a break from the adrenaline. Tomb Raider’s pacing is so good that there’s never a good time to stop. I would’ve played all night if I didn’t have school tomorrow.

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.

*chills

Tagged: game designTomb Raider