PAX West 2018 Notes

I saw so many fantastic and interesting games while at PAX this past weekend, and now that I’m recovered from my travels I want to take some time to call a few of them out:

The World Next Door

These first two are kind of cheats, as they’re actually games I first played at Dreamhack earlier this year and have followed since. The World Next Door is a puzzle combat game with some adventure elements. And yes, the gameplay is fun and that art looks gorgeous, but let me tell you now that what keeps me coming back is how charming the writing of all the characters is. I genuinely have laughed at this game several times just in the demos. The World Next Door was already high on my most anticipated list, but the new PAX demo was phenomenal.

Arcade Spirits

I actually hadn’t played much in the way of visual novels in the past, but in the past couple of years I’ve found my appetite for narrative-focused experiences really growing. Arcade Spirits is my current most-anticipated VN, because the only thing more fun in it than the retro-futuristic aesthetic is the cast. That seems to be a recurring theme in games I like: characters I want to be friends with. I’m already on the Patreon for this project, and eagerly looking forward to playing the finished game. I like this one enough that even though they didn’t have a booth at PAX, I sought out one of the developers to play some more on the literal show floor (thanks Aenne!)

Neo Cab

Neo Cab was one of the biggest surprises for me at PAX. A ride-sharing sim with great riding is already worth paying attention to. But when you throw a cyberpunk setting on top of that with a great color palette and a noir-ish mystery story? I’m 100% onboard and ready to explore this world. I also want to give a special shout-out to publisher Fellow Traveller‘s booth, which is how I discovered Neo Cab in the first place. Their “Pop-Up Artisanal Games Cafe”, complete with printed menus and booth attendants ready to rattle off each game’s “flavors” is one of the most utterly charming concepts I’ve ever encountered at a convention.

Abandon All Artichokes

I didn’t get a chance to try out many tabletop games this PAX. Emma Larkins, however, is another game developer I met at Dreamhack, and when I heard Emma was demoing a prototype of a new deck builder game, I knew I had to get in on that. I’m glad I did- not only does this game provide all the excitement I love of building up your deck, but it’s quick to explain and quicker to play. Abandon All Artichokes is the most stripped down game of this type I’ve ever seen, yet still manages to be both fun and true to the genre. Once it’s released, this is going to be a great game to take to coffee shops or into long convention lines.

Get in the Car, Loser!

I came across this game shortly before PAX, and I’m glad I did. It’s a classic JRPG, complete with combat I enjoy but don’t entirely understand. The characters are a lot of fun though- I particularly loved Grace and Valentin’s dynamic. Oh, let’s be real, I liked Grace in general- her attitude, her attacks; everything. The music is fantastic, and you can’t discount the importance of the game’s fantastic LGBTQ+ representation. Also loved the road trip aspect: characters have dialogue with each other while driving down the road together in Valentin’s car, and can be interrupted by combat depending on which lane you drive in.

Kingdom Two Crowns

So I’ve been mildly obsessed with Kingdom: New Lands for the past month or so. A survival city-building rogue-like where you build up defenses to protect a budding kingdom from nightly waves of monsters, there’s just something indelibly addictive about it for me. As soon as I lose a level (due purely to poor placement of resources and certainly not because of any bad decisions on my part), I’m ready to restart. However, when I heard about the next iteration, Two Crowns, I confess I was a little underwhelmed. I’m sure the game is fun co-op, but that’s not a feature I feel like it needed. However, I found out at PAX that Two Crowns is actually a much more involved overhaul of the game, with new mechanics and an entirely different structure. Now instead of building and then discarding settlements, you actually have an ongoing campaign, and might have to travel back and forth between locations. Color me intrigued.

Beyond Blue

I first checked out Beyond Blue because it seemed similar to a game friends of mine are working on. Once I got my hands on it however, I discovered what a unique and engrossing experience it is! The lighting effects are glorious, and the voice acting is perfect. Exploring this underwater world and scanning aquatic animals to unlock more information, I really felt like an explorer. There’s a fantastic sequence where you stumble into the den of a camouflaged octopus, and I can’t wait for more discoveries like that. Plus it’s by the same people who made the wonderful Never Alone, so that’s a strong point in its favor.

Regalia

This one’s actually already out- I’d never heard of it before, but I’m looking forward to spending time with it in the near future. It’s a tactical RPG, but what really drew me in were the characters and kingdom management elements. The fully-voiced dialogue was genuinely amusing, and I absolutely want to gather new citizens and set up trade routes. Once again, characters I like = yes from me.

Double Cross

I ended up playing this action platformer by chance, and probably wore out my welcome a little bit at the booth by the time I was done. The platforming gameplay feels great and has terrific variety- every level is built around a different way of using the game’s core grappling mechanic. It put me in mind of Nintendo’s habit of versatile uses of core gameplay actions, explained incredibly well by Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit in this video. The art is also refreshingly vibrant, and I always appreciate the ability to tackle levels in a nonlinear fashion. This is one to keep an eye on.

Felix the Reaper

How can you not want to know more about a project that bills itself as, “a romantic comedy game about the life of death”? This is a puzzle game about a grim reaper who just can’t stop dancing. In everything- art, animation, dialogue, sound- the game just oozes weird, quirky personality. The puzzles I encountered in the demo were simple, but gave me just enough of a hint of how later ones could be real noodle-cookers. This might be the most unusual game I played at PAX, and I’m ready for more.

Kick is a funny word if you say it enough.

I’ve been on a bit of a Kickstarter spree recently, largely due to getting my tax return this month. And since most of these get better the more people donate to them, I want to take a minute to point out each of them and talk about why they’re exciting to me.
 

Enemy


 
[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1209639165/enemy width=480]
 

This one actually just ended, so I’m a terrible promoter. I found out about it pretty late though, and luckily it did meet its goal. Still well worth checking out. I love turn-based tactical games like this, and when you add retro-gaming nostalgia and destructible physics-based environments, I’m paying attention. It’s definitely the smallest project I’ve backed, but the developer seems devoted, the game seems pretty far along, and the price was pretty reasonable, so I took a shot. Really looking forward to getting to play it.

 

Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey


 
[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/redthread/dreamfall-chapters-the-longest-journey width=480]
 

I never played the original Longest Journey, but I enjoyed the heck out of Dreamfall on the original Xbox. These are intelligently designed adventure games with really original, intricate and mature storytelling behind them, and I’m pleased as proverbial punch that the series is getting continued. As you can probably tell by the over million dollars raised for it so far, many others are as well. The Kickstarter has a little over a day left to go, and around $150,000 to go before reaching a stretch goal that adds back in a lot of content they had to cut from their plan for budget reasons. Hoping they meet that, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy the final product regardless.

 

Delver’s Drop


 
[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/pixelscopic/delvers-drop width=480]
 

This is a game I saw briefly at PAX Prime last year and resolved to keep an eye on, so I was on board early once they started their Kickstarter campaign. The art style is charming and the gameplay is a lot of fun for anyone that likes top-down dungeon crawlers like the classic Zelda games. I really like that they’ve got puzzles in the mix, so it’s not just combat and avoiding traps. What impressed me most though is how much more polished the Kickstarter footage looks compared to the build I saw last August, which already looked quite good. Excited to see what the finished game will be if this is how much they’ve accomplished on their own without funding.

 

Story War


 
[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cantripgames/story-war-the-storytelling-party-game width=480]
 

I am so super excited about this one. Cards Against Humanity has been a mainstay at parties I’ve been too recently, because that’s just my crowd. I love the social atmosphere and discussions that such games generate, and Story War takes that a step further by actually building the discussion over which card is best into the gameplay. Not to mention that it’s a game about telling a fun, creative story with comical fantasy motifs, which taken all together seems like a card game custom-designed for me. I actually put quite a bit of cash into my backing of this one, and I’m comfortable with my decision to invest in it because I know from what I’ve seen that I’m going to get a lot of enjoyment out of this game. In fact, I don’t want to wait for my physical set, and will be printing out the PDF version as soon as it becomes available!

 

Orc Wars


 
[kickstarter url=http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arrowstorm/orc-wars-feature-film width=480]
 

Well, I mean, come on. This movie just looks like good fun.

 
-Tim

Video Games, Narrative, and the Russian Post-Apocalypse

This is a short research article I wrote for an eBook one of my courses is publishing. It’s basically me on a soapbox for a couple of pages arguing that video games can be used to tell good stories, which is something I happen to believe fairly strongly in, being both a writer and a gamer. I’m mostly posting it here to give me an excuse to plug the Humble THQ Bundle, where you can currently still get Metro 2033, along with several other excellent games, for as low as $1, which then goes to charity. It’s a very good deal, as the Humble Bundle always is. I encourage you to take advantage of it while it’s still available.

 

There is considerable debate as to whether or not video games can be considered a narrative medium. Media scholar Henry Jenkins comments, “One gets rid of narrative as a framework for thinking about games only at one’s own risk.” On the other side of the debate between analytical focus on narrative vs. interactive elements, game theorist Jesper Juul states that “You can’t have narration and interactivity at the same time.” One of his primary arguments cites Seymour Chatman’s principle of a story’s transposability between different mediums, giving Atari’s 1983 Star Wars arcade game as an example of a narrative that fails to translate recognizably to video game form (Chatman 20). However, by examining more narratively complex video games as well as the definitions of some key terms, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the potential of games to convey a story.

Much of the disagreement over the narrative capabilities of video games results from differing interpretations of the concepts involved. Therefore, in the course of any discussion on the topic, it is helpful to first define some of the more important terms. So what is a video game? The Oxford English Dictionary provides this basic definition: “a game played by electronically manipulating images displayed on a television screen.” Games are, first and foremost, “played,” that is to say interactive. Anyone who has ever played with muted volume can attest that the game is still a game without sound, and text-only adventures suggest that visual elements are also optional. Simple games like Atari’s Pong allow that the inclusion of narrative elements is likewise not required. Even the presence of difficulty or opposition is not universal, as demonstrated in atmospheric games like Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, where the entirety of the gameplay consists of walking an elderly woman to a bench. But control is always required on some level: a video game without interactivity is just a video. The only other firm distinguishing feature can be found in the other word, “video”: these games are always displayed via an electronic platform of some sort, be it a PC, a console, or a mobile device. Thus, any interactive game on an electronic display can be said at the base level to be a video game, with sound, graphics, narrative, and difficulty being optional components.

Having established the definition of the medium, it is equally important to determine the nature of narrative in order to examine their relationship. The OED defines a narrative as, “an account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.” Can games fit this definition? In 4A Games’ Metro 2033, a series of events and facts is indeed depicted in a variety of ways: the game opens with a video, presenting the voiceover of the main character, Artyom, describing his life and the post-apocalyptic underground he inhabits. While not many specific events are depicted in the video, it does convey facts (within the game’s fictional context) which provide the setting for the rest of the game’s action. Within the game, more narrative information is conveyed in a variety of ways. Spoken dialogue is often used to explain elements of the world or to establish new goals, such as when the character Khan instructs Artyom to go to Armory station and meet with a man named Smith. This then becomes Artyom’s new short-term goal and the driving narrative objective of the next segment of the game. Information is also conveyed visually: when the player sees a floating electrical Anomaly sweep through a tunnel and clear it of mutants, it both removes that obstacle from Artyom’s journey, and communicates knowledge about this new hazard.

None of these elements, however, address Juul’s purported contradiction between narration and interactivity. Can gameplay mechanics themselves be used to further a narrative? In fact, an excellent example of this can be found in Metro 2033‘s “Child” chapter. In it, Artyom meets Sasha, a young boy who has been left alone after his uncle was killed by mutants. Artyom agrees to escort Sasha to the other survivors of his station, and at the end of the section’s opening cut scene, Sasha runs toward Artyom, passing out of the field of view. Once control is returned to the player, they find that the boy is nowhere to be seen, though he can still be heard speaking. This could be mistaken for a glitch if not for the fact that the game’s controls are also altered here: turning suddenly becomes slower and more ungainly, hampering both navigation and combat. The gameplay here thus conveys, without it being explicitly stated (until the boy is returned to his mother later), that Sasha is now riding on Artyom’s back. By itself this would be considered poor gameplay; the “floaty” controls could be derided as sloppy design. It is only when given its narrative context that this episode makes sense: the change in gameplay signals how Artyom gets Sasha back to his people, sacrificing his own maneuverability and safety in the process. The very interactivity of this segment is used to convey information about the character as well as how the narrative is moved forward.

Returning to Juul’s statement that narratives cannot translate to video games in a recognizable form, it is helpful to examine one final concept: medium. Media scholar Marshall McLuhan explains that, “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 9). Therefore, it follows that an individual’s experience of a narrative in any medium will always be altered by the format in which it is presented, making a perfect translation impossible. This can be seen often in translations between novels and films: movies made from books will remove scenes or entire storylines and characters in order to present a more concise narrative, while novelizations will take advantage of their greater length and depth of material to actually expand on events and concepts only touched upon in a film. A change of medium can also affect a story after its creation: consider the way in which commercials break the narrative flow of a film on broadcast television, altering the viewer’s perception in comparison to theatrical presentation. The manner in which a narrative is presented will always change its form in relation to the audience.

The issue, therefore, becomes not whether narratives can translate perfectly to video games, but whether they are still recognizable as the same narrative after the transition. Juul argues that Atari’s Star Wars arcade game fails this test, but it is possible to turn to Metro 2033 for a far more robust model. In the game, Artyom leaves his home station after being charged by Hunter with carrying a message to Polis, along the way encountering dangers including monsters, environmental hazards, and other humans. He is helped by several characters during his journey and eventually reaches Polis, joining with a group of elite warriors there to destroy the “Dark Ones” plaguing his home station. In Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel on which the game is based, many of the events are different. Artyom visits different stations and at times encounters different characters. The dangers in the novel are more psychological, eschewing the mutated enemies which fill out the first-person shooter interactivity of the video game.

For instance, in one early portion of the story Artyom is a member of a party traveling one of the metro tunnels, and finds himself the only man not rendered helpless by a mysterious noise that only he can hear. In the novel Artyom rallies his compatriots against various psychological afflictions (one man falls unconscious, another breaks down sobbing, a third wanders forward into the darkness aimlessly.) In the game, all of the other characters exhibit similar signs of psychological disturbance, with one man muttering about an undefined “them” as ghostly shadows appear along the walls of the tunnel. The entire party is then knocked unconscious after being enveloped by a strange light. Artyom awakes in time to fight off a horde of mutant enemies while he guards his helpless companions. This narrative event occurs differently in ways that suit the respective mediums: communicating with a delusional, weeping man would not make for exciting gameplay, while the harrowing battle against the pursuing creatures would feel repetitive and dull in the novel without the excitement of interactivity. But in both versions of the story the same basic event occurs: Artyom’s party is disabled while in transit between his home and the next nearest station, bringing him face to face with the mysterious dangers of the tunnels. He is the sole member of his party to retain his ability to resist, and is seen as the hero of the hour by the other men after he delivers them from danger.

The same principle holds true of the story as a whole: despite changes to accommodate the differing mediums, the basic structure of the narrative remains the same in both versions. Artyom journeys through the Metro for Polis, seeking to save his home station from the encroaching Dark Ones. The setting, beginning, end, and many of the major characters all survive the transition from one medium to another largely intact. Were all mention of the title “Metro 2033to be removed from the game, no one who had read the novel could fail to recognize it as the same story, any less than, to return to Juul’s argument, the events of a Pride and Prejudice movie can be recognized by those who have read the novel.

Although McLuhan’s oft-quoted catchphrase declares that “The Medium is the Message,” what is less often cited is his accompanying statement that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 7, 8). Video game software can thus be viewed as a medium of communication filled with both implicit and optional elements including interactive gameplay, graphics, and narrative, each of which is a medium in itself and carries its own message which interweaves with others to contribute to the meanings created by the video game as a whole. Games are not, intrinsically, narratives, any more than a film or a book is. But they are a valid and unique platform for telling stories.

 

Sources:

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse : Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. Print.

Glukovsky, Dmitry. Metro 2033. Trans. Natasha Randall. London: Gollancz, 2011. Print.

The Graveyard. Dev. Harvey, Auriea and Michaël Samyn.  Tale of Tales. 2008. Video game.

Jenkins, Henry. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” First Person. Electronic Book Review, 2004. Web. 2 December 2012.

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories?Game Studies. 1.1 (2001). Web. 11 November 2012.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005. eBook.

Metro 2033. Vers. 1.0.0.1. Dev. 4A Games. THQ Inc. 2010. Video game.

“narrative.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

“video game.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. OED.com. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.

Asynchronicity

Today we’re going to talk about asynchronous games, and why you should be playing one. With me.

I keep busy these days. I have a blog, a fantasy novel in progress, a full schedule of classes, a part-time job, a cat, an apartment, a social life, shows to watch, books to read, and a scattering of odd hobbies I’m trying to pick up on the side, covering everything from playing the guitar to making shadow puppets. I’m still very much a gamer, but my video game time tends to be sporadic and at odd hours. This is fine for single-player experiences, which have always been my bread and butter anyway. But it’s still nice to be able to play with other gaming friends. It’s a hobby that lends itself to being shared, and I don’t want to completely forgo that bonding element just because I don’t have time to level up a smuggler, practice my 2-gate Zealot rush or practice my twitch-headshot skills. Now I’m adding some social gaming back into my life by hosting retro gaming parties, but that’s a subject for another time. Right now, I want to talk about asynchronous games, and how they’re a great help to the modern, mature gamer-on-the-go.

 

Games With Friends

 

 
I’m not going to talk about Words with Friends, because the fact you’re reading this indicates that you have internet access, whether under a rock or otherwise, so you already know about Words with Friends. But did you know that Zynga also has a range of other asynchronous “with Friends” games? They aren’t playable on all of the platforms that Words is, but if you have an iOS device there are several options that aren’t Scrabble-inspired. I’m currently knee-deep in losing a game of Chess with Friends to my father back in Virginia, a time-honored tradition since I was young. I haven’t given the other games much of a look, but I’m not dis-interested. My tag is TimGarris on that service.

 

Hero Academy

 

 
Penny Arcade first brought this game to my attention, which I imagine is a common state of affairs. I’m glad they did, because this is a fantastic turn-based strategy game that’s great for pulling out for a quick minute or two between appointments. Or meals. Or stoplights. Or sentences. You each get a team of units with unique properties depending on which faction you choose to play as. The units are all fairly well balanced and have different abilities, and which ones you get are chosen randomly, like drawing cards from a deck. The small grid-based playing field keeps the action pretty constant and easy to digest, and after a few rounds you’ll likely be tempted to drop money on one of the expansion faction, like dark elves or dwarves. If you’re a gamer looking for something a little meatier than a board game, this is a great one to pick up. It’s available on both iOS and Steam with cross-platform play, so it’s super accessible, too. My name on there is Smikian, one of the permutations of my usual gamertag.

 

Frozen Synapse

 

I just started playing this recently, and it’s the game that made me want to talk about this subject in the first place. It’s desktop-only and a bit more involved than the other two, but still very much in the “play a quick turn whenever you can” setup. Basically you control little representations of soldiers on a simple 3D map, giving them instructions on where to move, where to aim and so on, then pit your strategy against your opponent’s, with both playing out simultaneously. If you ever played the original Rainbow Six back in the day and loved the planning phase, this is for you. It takes some thinking to get used to all of the tactical options and learn to think strategically and anticipate what the other side will do, but once you get it down it’s a really fun time. It also has the ability to replay turns, which can get addictive when you pull off something really cool. My name on there is Smakian, yet another gamertag variation.

Those are the asynchronous games I’m playing right now. Do you play any of them? Or have another that you want to recommend? Let me know!

As a sidenote, I just realized that two out of three of these games was developed in Texas, which reminds me how much I love the game development scene down here. Also did not notice before that the Hero Academy guys are also the Orcs Must Die guys. It’s not asynchronous and so not really within the purview of this post, but those games are also awesome and worth checking out.

-Tim