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7:48 PM on 01.01.2013

Rantview: Ace of Spades

I have just turned twenty-seven years old. I am, as far as the internet is concerned, an old man, cynical and tired. As such, I tend to scoff when I hear game discussion centered about how games should first and foremost be 'fun'. Fun is not the thing I want the most in my games. My favourite game of 2012 probably was dys4ia, which is about as fun as reading a book about the Holocaust. Last year I also played Far Cry 2 (yes, 2) and Spec Ops: The Line, and I loved how both games resented the player for wanting to have fun. You want to be a gung-ho hero? WELL FUCK YOU, IT'S ACTUALLY BORING, NOW SHOOT SOME MORE IDENTICAL DUDES. Games don't need to be fun, they need to be engaging, and fun is only one of the myriad ways engagement can be achieved. I expect something interesting out of my games, so if a game tries to hook me only by trying to be fun, it needs to have an outstanding execution of fun for it to even blink in my radar.

I love Ace of Spades, because it is so much fun.

Ace of Spades is a class-based multiplayer shooter, which is a genre I'm hopelessly in love with, and that rarely is done well. Its main feature is that the terrain is entirely destructible, up to a (rather shallow) water level. This is not the first game to have claimed it, but the first to actually deliver, being technically possible to destroy every single block in a level until you're left with a large expanse of the lowest water layer. Likewise, you can build structures, block by block or by setting down ready-made structures like bunkers and platforms. I guess one way you could describe it is as Minecraft meets Team Fortress 2, though that simultaneously overhypes and undersells the actual game.

I don't like Minecraft, and don't really understand why so many people like it, since it appears most people play it as either a middling survival horror game or as absolutely awful 3D sculpting software. (I have my suspicions, though. Or have stolen the suspicions of smarter people; whichever.) The blurbs that declare Ace of Spades to be a "creative shooter" are lies: changes to the levels are not persistent and each game mode has a clear objective that does not involve gigantic phalluses, so there is little point in trying to recreate you favourite Super Mario 64 level in it, but it also adds a far more unique veneer to them. In Minecraft, every passageway you find is either a drab computer-generated cave or an attempt to build something - either way, something put there for you to look at. In Ace of Spades, finding a little cave or an abandoned bunker is a little bit of hyper-recent archeology - the tale of a guy who got lost or a bunch of people who couldn't hold their position that happened two minutes ago and of which you were part. A little tunnel can tell a better story than ten skyscrapers with redstone-powered elevators.

Comparing Ace of Spades to Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, betrays the former's simplicity, but, I feel, to its benefit. Team Fortress 2 is a great, well designed game, no matter how much you hate hats. But, for all the variety in its gameplay, all the classes exist for the same thing: combat. Some are simple and all you have to do is point at something and shoot; some are complex and may require you to understand the game mechanics, the level design, the opponents' psychology before you can strike effectively. But whether you are firing a minigun from the cart, deploying an ubercharge, holding an area with a sentry and a shotgun or backstabbing six people in a row, your ultimate tool is always killing a bunch of people. On Ace of Spades, combat isn't the only way to go. Your tools are combat, navigation and terrain alteration; three of the classes excels at one of these, to the detriment of the others. The odd man out is the marksman, jack of all trades but master of none. He can fight well, but not as good as the Commando; he's the fastest runner, but unlike the Rocketeer can't fly; and he's got great structures to place quickly, but can't dig quite as fast as the Miner. The classes on TF2 are built so that they each bring something to the game's objectives; the classes on AoS are abstractions of the game's very design, each representing a far more deliberate choice on how the player wishes to approach their challenges.

But, while all that certainly helps, it's not why Ace of Spades is so much fun.

What makes it so fun is that it's a videogame.

There are other games that have tried to do the "everything can be destroyed' approach, and they have, in one way or another, failed. Both Red Faction Guerilla and the recent Battlefield games have been plagued by destructible buildings that stay up for much longer than they should, three floors hinging on a single surprisingly strong load-bearing column. The obvious solution to this game is to perfect the tech until it can run things like distributed weight and material deformation. Ace of Spades does the non-obvious solution: realize that this is a freakin' videogame and make everything out of blocks. Like a cubist painting, everything is blocks: mountains and trees and houses and cars and bridges and buildings and monsters are no different from your shovel's perspective. A building supported by a single block that's actually part of the foliage of a nearby tree, doesn't look strange, because we are looking at the guts of the system and it's not a building or a tree any more, just a bunch of blocks.

And that's why Ace of Spades is so fun. It doesn't attempt to reconcile its limitations with its setting, it embraces them instead. Its levels are abstract, insane, a direct sucessor to the most far-fetched Atari representation of a game world within a 192x160 screen. One of the levels, Block Ness (ha!) is dominated by a giant blocky monster. The monster does nothing; it's a statuette, serving the same purpose of the mountains and igloos that also dot the level, and you can dig through its insides and come out of its mouth if you feel so inclined. You won't feel so inclined. The game is a multiplayer shooter and so you are always shooting someone or being shot at by someone or trying to complete some oddball objective. There will be no Minecraft megaprojects made in a round here, but those megaprojects are simply for show, blocks put together with no life; the haphazard tunnels and clustered bunkers you'll sometime run into in Ace of Spades are always deliberate constructions, with purpose and a history.

The game is intensely aware of this, as you can tell by its fun multiplayer modes. (You can tell the fun multiplayer modes from the others in two ways: they are the ones which have exclamation marks at the end of their names, and they are the ones the empty servers are running.) Zombie! has the infected zombies, able to use only melee attacks, against the dwindling survivors, and is not a new idea by itself (just from personal experience, I can tell it's identical to the Infection mode in TimeSplitters 2) by it's the only game I've seen capable of reproduce a zombie outbreak in its entirety within a five-minute round, with the survivors first hunkering down in any tall, large pre-existing structure then barring down doors and windows with clashing debris. Multi-Hill!, a take on King of the Hill that actually makes it fun, consists on rushing to several scoring areas then holding it until it's bombed, eventually dotting the maps on the remains of hastily-built defense structures that are often appropriated by savvy opposing players.

But Diamond Mine!, I think, is the nadir of Ace of Spades' concept. The goal is to find a diamond, which can spawn randomly every time a block is destroyed, and take it to a scoring area. This simple premise manages to bring up all the gameplay elements into focus: use terrain alteration to find the diamond, movement to get it to the scoring zone, combat to stop the enemy from doing so. But, more importantly, it displays the intense disregard the game has for any semblance of setting. The diamond can spawn randomly from any block destroyed, and if you destroy multiple blocks at the same time, as you can by destroying a block that's supporting others, you compound your chances of finding one. Trees are made of over ten blocks and a single one at the trunk.

Remember the old noob who asks "how you mine for fish?" If he had asked how you mine for diamonds, the best answer is that you cut down trees.

Why not? Why should you expect diamonds to be found underground? There is no difference. They are just blocks. Some blocks are brown and some are green and some are lower and some are higher and look, these blocks are in the shape of a London double decker bus, but it isn't one, it doesn't move or explode or honk or make anything that a bus does, it's just a decoration, or maybe a place you can dig up to without your opponents noticing. Every other war game is struggling to make a level that looks like people lived in it maybe but is also fun to shoot people in, while Ace of Spades succeeds with gross caricatures. We all know this isn't an Arctic village, or a lost Mayan temple, or London, it's just a level in a game, so why pretend it isn't one? The starting level is just a suggestion, now go dig a tunnel right under your opponents' base to steal their intel and watch as they now have to defend it from above and below, for the rest of the game. These amazing design sensibilities pour through and fill every game mode, each one adding a brand new thing to the formula and reverberating with greatness.

Except for Team Deathmatch, of course. Which is what everyone plays.

The problem with multiplayer games, as always, is other people.   read

9:48 AM on 02.23.2012

Endings: GTAIV's BAD END

The worst part is that I had been clamoring for years for a truly mature title, with characters that are actually well thought out and a story that actually amounts to something, and when it actually came out I had to say that I hated it and that I liked a game about spraying shit on buildings better.

I've realized that if GTAIV had been the first game on a new franchise I'd have been much more lenient to it, and might have actually become a grudging fan despite its slow-as-molasses combat, stupid checkpoint placement (or lack thereof), tendency to stop its actually good story to make sure Niko went through a checklist of pointless drab questgivers until every stereotypical New York criminal was ticked off, and completely insane controls (Tap A to run, Rockstar? We have something called analog sticks nowadays. They have been around for a while - you might want to look into them.)

(By the way, there will be GTAIV spoilers in this post. It's ending week - what did you expect?)

The first time I finished the game, I chose the revenge ending and was treated to some disappointment. If at least the game had had the decency to end after Niko kills Dimitri, it wouldn't be so bad - unfulfilling revenge is one of the game's main themes, after all, and it ending on the same boat that brought Niko to America in the first place would make for a nice symmetry. But no, the game dragged on. A character that had been previously shown as a bumbling fool was promoted to Big Bad, and failed to fill those pants so terribly that I thought he was sitting on a deflated boat. A character is murdered - a character that, due to a tragic Faggio accident, I had had almost no interaction with in my gameplay. Then I had to sit through another of those amazing chase sequences in which my target car is equipped with special magnets that make it always remain at a certain distance from my own car, and then the game that had stripped away all my fun throughout the entire gameplay in the name of a realistic gritty story told me to jump a boat to a helicopter. And then I killed a guy I had no real beef with and I was informed that I'd won. And so I'd never have to play that damned game again.

At least I wouldn't if I could find a YouTube video of the ending that didn't think I would be more interested in some preteen twat's innermost thoughts than in the dialogue of the game that titled the video I was watching. Or at least one who didn't skip the cutscenes on the assumption that I was really interested in hot pointless driving action. So I grit my teeth and go through To Live and Die in Alderney, one of the most annoying missions in an annoying game, again. I listen to stupid characters say stupid things again. I follow a car through scripted traffic. I charge a bunch of cops with a shotgun because the only place to take cover is a low wall behind a column and if I try to take cover there Niko will merrily fire round after round at the wall and the two hardcore mafiosi I'm babysitting have hugged the unglitched spots. I die and do all that again, because the concept of checkpoints is as alien to Rockstar as analog sticks.

Eventually, I do it. I get to the ending, again. I make the other choice. I start to watch, and - there's suddenly something different. This isn't the same scene with different characters. Niko's reaction is much greater this time, and yet it feels much more fitting. Everybody hates Roman, but he's been there from the beginning. You couldn't lose him in a stupid Faggio accident. Like him or not, you had saved him from danger, and he had tried to save you from damnation, in a meaningless choice that was clearly meaningful for him, even if he couldn't express it. And he had been killed by the guy who had been a thorn in your side since you set foot in town.

I suddenly understood everything.

The concept of a 'good ending' and a 'bad ending' has existed in videogames for decades. Simply getting to the end is not enough; you need to do everything right, or your characters will be fucked up. The problem, of course, is that, conversely, (this sentence sure has a lot of commas,) if you do everything right, it follows that everything will end up nicely for the characters, even if that's at odds with the game's themes up to that point - Silent Hill is guilty of this, with some of the 'best' ending being as out of tune with the grim hopelessness of the game as the wacky ones with the aliens.

That's not the case with GTAIV, though. It has a good ending and a bad one - not for the characters, though, for the player. The Revenge ending is unsatisfying, haphazard and unstructured - the bad ending. The Deal ending brings up the stakes to the maximum, always hits the emotions it was gunning for and gives Niko's actions the weight that they should have - a good ending. Both of them are bad for the characters, because that's the kind of story GTAIV is trying to tell, but only in one of them that story actually amounts to something.

There are many people, myself included, who want their games to tell better stories, but there are also many people, myself included, who thinks those stories will be pointless if they are just cutscenes shoehorned between pieces of gameplay. They need to be woven into the mechanics; they need to work alongside each other, not against. There are plenty of people who are thinking of ways the story can be the gameplay by itself; perhaps this is such a way.

You still have to jump to a helicopter, only with a dirtbike instead of a boat. Can't win them all I guess.   read

4:27 PM on 02.01.2012

Mass Effect: Correction

So have you heard about how the latest Mass Effect novel apparently has a ton of errors, almost as if it was written by someone whose only previous interest in the franchise has been a list of place and race names that was being used to package a wad of cash? Oh, of course you have. That was, what, yesterday. In Internet years, that is like three hundred thousand light years. You probably don't even remember what Mass Effect is any more. You need more recent news - news from the future!

And as it turns out, I have news from the future, delivered to my by a future version of myself. I know it's a future version of myself because he was wearing a hat, and people in the future wear hats. Sure, some people in the present also wear hats, myself included, as you can see by the excellently drawn pixel 'art' up in the blog banner, but in the future everyone wears hats, including my future self. Taking that into evidence, I have no reason to doubt that this document is a similar pile of errors from a future, upcoming Mass Effect novel, to be titled Mass Effect: Correction. To release such a document to the present public is my honor and duty.

[Error: Character] One of the main characters was, in a previous book, an autistic homosexual atheist flatfooted communist. None of these traits are present in the Correction narrative, and are explained away as he having 'grown out of his troublesome behaviour'. It's impossible to grow out of flat feet.

[Error: Lore] All canon representations of the Illusive Man show him to spare no money or efforts in keeping his identity concealed. It's therefore highly unlikely that he has three hitherto unknown brothers, especially who are in such high profile positions as a famous advertiser with a strong personality, a man currently undergoing trial for domestic violence and a literature professor whose work is a reference for all in the field. It's even more unlikely that they would be known as Effusive Man, Abusive Man and Allusive Man.

[Error: Lore] A female character express regret over having had a relationship with a Drell. That could never happen; chicks dig Drell. Haters gonna hate.

[Error: Lore] Sound does not travel through the vaccum of space. The exploding Turian dreadnought would make no noise at all, and definitively no noise that can only be conveyed by three pages of PSHOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMPFFFFFF.

[Error: Lore] The Krogan assault squads are often referred to as 'a fuckload of Krogan'. The proper collective noun should be 'a clusterfuck of Krogan'.

[Oddity: Lore] It is true that each Geth mobile platform is composed of thousands of individual subroutines, each considering itself an individual and who must all reach consensus before any action is taken by the platform. However, nothing in canon suggests that they vote by depositing either a tiny one or a tiny zero on a ballot, or that geth subroutines that vote one are bleeding heart liberals while those that vote zero are hard-headed traditionalists.

[Error: Lore] Turian religion does not have saints, so the sancticity of the artifact auctioned, the Turian Shroud, is... wait, Turian Shroud? Oh, now I get it! That's- that's sort of funny, actually. Heh. Turian shroud.

[Oddity: Character] The two last lines of dialogue between the Illusive Man and the protagonist, at the end of the first chapter, clash with their depictions in the rest of the dialogue, and indeed in the rest of the novel. Despite both being portrayed as intelligent and well-spoken people, at the end the Illusive Man says "Dude even the fucking game is fucking Tolstoy, I ain't reading all that" to which the protagonist replies "Don't worry, nerds will buy it anyway".

[Error: Lore] Mass effect fields were left behind for sentient races to discover. Nowhere in the lore is suggested that mankind might have developed it independently, or named it after the city of Effect Fields, Massachusetts.

[Error: Lore] It's impossible for a Hanar to have "ample and supple breasts" because they are fucking jellyfish.

[Oddity: Character] The Salarian assassin that accompanies the group does not show any of his combat abilities or tactical knowledge that he displayed on previous novels, and in fact is only mentioned in passing when at the midpoint of the book it's stated that "the lizard dude that I forgot was supposed to be in this book was also there, and in fact was with them all along".

[Error: Lore] When the group arrives in the Volus homeworld they find all stores are closed due to 'Volus Chistmas'. That scenario is erroneous to the point that it cannot possibly be reconciled with the canon, as Volus are Jewish. Everyone else also thinks that, right? It's not just me?

[Error: Lore] The Ferengi are normally shorter than other races and all evidence points to them having always been so; no references exist to them "being cursed to remain diminutive by the furious Earth deity known only as Gary Coleman". Furthermore, the Ferengi are from Star Trek and not Mass Effect.

[Error: Character] The group encounters a human couple who are in a healthy, open relationship based on mutual love and respect. However, all canon everywhere suggest human females are incapable of true love, even when a really nice guy is totally into them, maybe he's just a bit shy, but they prefer that stupid jock Chad anyway.

[Error: Lore] Before having sex, the Quarian is said to take immunity boosters so she can stay out of her suit. However, it is stated elsewhere that Quarians are dextro-proteic and thus cannot be contaminated by most viruses in the galaxy; what seem to be diseases are actually super-strong allergies triggered by viruses merely as foreign agents. Allergies grow stronger under immunity boosters; she should have taken immunosupressants instead.
Note: This document is for the novel only; leave anything from the games out of it!   read

8:06 PM on 01.01.2012

Resolutions: Achieve Something

The best way to describe gamification is to paraphrase Steve Butts and say it’s a concept as interesting and exciting as its name is stupid, and its name is very stupid. It’s the idea that the same stuff that game designers use to make sure people playing their games get what they’re supposed to do to make people in real life have both a better idea and a reward for doing the things they should do. I always wanted to try doing something like that, personally, with my life - if Jane McGonigal can use a super hero game to help her recover from a malady that left her literally unable to think, why shouldn’t I, while totally in possession of my mental faculties (even if they’re nothing compared to McGonigal’s) also be able to change my life for the better?

The problem for me has always been that I’m not as willing to put as much effort into games as other gamers seem to. When I read an article about how Generation II pokémon were on average much more powerful than Generation I and had much higher stats, I was befuddled, because I had been playing Pokémon like a highly elaborate game of rock-paper-scissors and assumed attack power was as important as a pokémon’s height. Stuff like Learn Japanese RPG starts from the assumption that since you can learn that sort of boring repetitive stuff for Final Fantasy you could learn that from the same framework stuff that you could actually use in real life, but I could never bother with that stuff even in Final Fantasy. What hope is there for me?

Then I thought... achievements. Now, I’m not an achievement whore, the number of games that I have gotten 100% achievements is a proud zero, and if you want to plot the best way to get 100% achievements with minimal playthroughs more power to you, but I’m not about to spend twenty hours in the Drab Caves to kill 200 Dire Rats for the Adolph Ratler achievement. But... if I calculate I already killed like 14 rats to get past the Drab Caves in story mode, I just might go back and spend an hour or so to kill six more to get the Joseph Sratlin achievement. And there is a chance I’m spending this very weekend trying to get all the Christmas achievements for Steam’s thing, so I’m clearly not above it. Why not use it to my benefit?

So instead of New Year resolutions, which never work anyway, I’m setting forth my achievements for 2012. They focus on the things I’m the most unhappy with in my life - I haven’t taken any serious steps towards becoming a serious writer even though that’s my stated goal, and my social life is seriously lacking. (Notice: Reading that previous sentence means you are automatically my bro.) On the other hand, there’s nothing to help me (say) become better at work, because seriously, fuck work. And, in the same way I deal with game achievements, I’m not going to 100% completion - just trying to get as much as I can. If I fail, well - there’s always next year.


5:58 PM on 12.25.2011

A Gaming Carol, Final Part: Gaming Yet To Be

(This is the final part of a four-part series. It begins here, then continues here and here.)

Ebenezer had given up on trying to sleep, and was just sitting on the edge of his bed, thinking and waiting for the next internet celebrity to come admonish him. It didn’t take long for a floating specter to make its way through his balcony doors. It was draped in a dark cloak, and its features could not be discerned.

“So, who are you? That guy... with... the glasses?” Ebenezer venture. He didn’t exactly had a finger on pop culture’s pulse, he paid others to do that for him, and had no way of knowing whether or not they were doing a good job (they weren’t). It didn’t help that this latest ghost didn’t look anything like an internet reviewer, and resembled much more, well, a ghost.

“Aren’t you going to insult me? Admonish me? Complain about my business strategies? Reveal what a rotten human being I am?”

The specter didn’t reply, merely stared from the dark depths of its dark hood, or didn’t. It might not even have a face.

“Won’t you tell me what I have to do? Tell me what I shouldn’t have done? Put everything in perspective?”

There was no reply.

“Come on already! Tell me what all my friends think about me! Show me my stock portfolio! Show me what my first grade teacher thinks about me! Tell me a review of my latest game! Anything!”


Ebenezer was taken aback, because this was the first ghost that not only hadn’t insulted him, but had actually been kind to his efforts. Also, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be shouldn’t speak. “Who are you, anyway?”

The spectre removed his cloak, revealing himself to be a robot dressed in what a future archeologist might think people dressed like in the 90’s, as well as that the cloak was a Dante’s Inferno 25th Anniversary Edition promotional item. “I AM THE REVIEWER OF THE FUTURE. I GRADE GAMES BY EXAMINING THE SCORE PLAYERS BELIEVE IT SHOULD RECEIVE, THEN CALCULATING THE WEIGHTED AVERAGE WEIGHTING BY HOW STRONGLY PLAYERS FEEL ABOUT THE GAME IN QUESTION.”

“But the players won’t even have played the game by that time.”


“If that’s the case, then why not just give every game a high grade?”


“So what score does it deserve?”


“But you just said that’s a bad score to give it!”


“Huh. That will suck for economists.”

“2014. NOW BE QUIET AS I TRANSPORT YOU INTO THE FUTURE YEAR OF 20XX.” The robot smashed a beer can on its forehead, and the two were gone.


Statistically speaking, some funerals must not happen on cloudy, grey afternoons, but statistics were no longer a science, and this one was. The closed coffin slid along slowly across the graveyard, being veiled by people who seemed sad to see someone they knew pass, but even sadder that they had to waste a afternoon like this. There were no bouts of desperate crying or helpless sobs, just a general sense of mild ennui, which might have as well been for the shortness of men’s stay on this world instead of the unfortunate soul who had checked out.

Ebenezer got himself lost from the roboghost and was following the dire businesspeople who followed the procession with a lack of enthusiasm apparent even for funeral standards. It’s not that they were happy, it’s that they were not unhappy enough. Ebenezer stayed with them until the burial, and mused on how, after his passing, he would not be remembered as a friend, or as a family man, but just as a business partner. Marley’s funeral had been just the same, and he had seen his would be as well. He decided that if no one else would, he would give himself an eulogy.

“This isn’t my grave”, it ended up being.

“Lucky be you, then” said a gravedigger who was just done topping out the hole. “Well, maybe not. Guy was rich as well, a video game industry exec. But of course, he switched to movies when the whole thing came crushing down. Then movies also went down, but he was already rich enough that it was easy to remain rich, as long as he sat on a director’s board every once in a while.”

“The game industry crashed?”

“‘Course it did. Amazing no one saw it coming. I worked at a game company, myself, and, well, you know what they say about hindsight. We were treating games like gadgets - millions on development, waiting to make millions back on a few weeks - but people were treating us like cheap entertainment. The only thing that kept was going was a generation so entitled they couldn’t bear to wait for the price to drop.”

“And what happened?”

“Oh, lots of things. Digital distribution shot up. The economy went south - further south. Even politics changed - that kind of entitlement went away in the post-occupy world. We thought we couldn’t afford to change, but what we couldn’t afford to do was continue doing the same things. Eventually my company went under. Thousands fired.”

“What company did you work for again?”

“One of the greatest. VisionActive. We had the most assets, so we survived the longest, or rather, we took the longest to sink. And now I’m digging holes for a living.”

Or rather, he was filling a hole, and as he was done topping it off, he went away. “What a curious man”, Ebenezer said. “He must work for me on the present. I should try to find him. He kind of looks like my father.”

He thought about that for a while, then said, “Shit.”

After that he was back in his bedroom, and he knew exactly what to do.


Merry Christmas, boys and girls, and get ready for a veritable Christmas miracle, the likes of which we’ve never had before. Remember Ebenezer Roberts, the evil CEO of VisonActive? The cackling madmen who had never known joy?

Well, he just did the most awesome thing he could have ever done for video games as an industry, a medium, and an artform. For years and years to come, we shall look back on this day and reflect on just how much he did for us.

What did he do? Well, he resigned from his CEO position, of course! In fact, he pulled a Gates on us and announced that he will be working with an NGO to provide computational infrastructure to impoverished areas all around the world - no word yet if it will be set up so poor people will need to pay separatedly for additional infrastructure, unless they buy a season pass.

This just goes to show that deep down everyone has a good man's heart, which in Ebenezer's case was in a large jar behind his bed. But the important thing is that he's left games behind. Let us all rejoice, for he can do us no more harm!

Merry Christmas, and to all a Happy New Year!   read

10:19 PM on 12.22.2011

A Gaming Carol, Part III: Gaming Present

(This is part 3 of a 4-part thing. Part one is here and part two is here.)

Ebenezer tried to convince himself that what had just happened couldn’t have just happened, and probably would have succeeded if it wasn’t for the fudge stain, that was slowly making the transition from ‘delicious food’ to ‘stuff that fell on the floor’. Althought he tended to act like a supervillain on occasion, he didn’t have a lot of servants ready to serve his every whim hidden away under trapdoors, and he certainly didn’t have anyone on Christmas night. So he just rolled up the rug and pushed it into the living room. Then he went to lie down again, because rugs are heavy.

He was in the drunken state of half-sleep when he became aware of a fast-speaking voice. It started out far away, but quickly grew in intensity; it was a fast, wordy lithany, like a profane prayer, without any pauses for breath, and he had the feeling that it was criticizing him. Considering the nature of the last visitor, it probably wasn’t too far off.

He got up on his bed and was punched by yellow. He hadn’t closed his balcony curtains, and now beyond the glass there was just yellow, a bright yellow like the world was burning. Not even burning - like the world was fire. And a... creature had slithered in and on top of his bed. At least, it seemed animate, but barely so; it was just a shape moving in jerky motions, like a skipping DVD player, had no features, and its limbs weren’t quite connected.

He reflexively kicked it away from under his blankets, but it was quickly replaced by two more. The entire room, he realized, was covered by these twitching critters, and in front of his balcony yellow a hovering white shape seemed to control their flow. It was talking. It talked feverishly, without pause, mocking everything he had ever done or decided to do, making outlandish metaphors that he could hardly process, let alone confront.

It had a British accent.

“In the same way that farmers realized that letting chickens on a rickety wooden floor on top of of the pigs will let them save a lot of money on pig food, Ebenezer Roberts realized that people would keep giving him money even though he was selling them not only shit but recycled shit. He keeps justifying everything he does to himself as if he was some business genius, saying, Oh ho ho! I’ll fire two hundred people today! But it’s not me, it’s the market forces! And the market forces look at each other in confusion, shrug, and go away to bother Occupy Wall Street protesters., while Ebenezer whistles innocently and wipes his dick in the curtains.”

“What” Ebenezer said. He didn’t manage to lend the word an inflexion, bedazzled as he was by the machine gun indictments. As the sermon approached a crescendo, the little creatures leapt up and down on his bed, or rather, teleported from touching his legs to midair. The bizarre composition of everything drove him to tears.

“Stop that! You don’t know anything! Go away!”

The thing stopped, and it suddenly was a normal young man, wearing an elegant vest and a rather nice fedora.

“I know everything, Ebenezer.”

“You are that reviewer that hates our games! Ben, right?”

“I am not Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw. I am the Spirit of Gaming Present. I have simply borrowed his image to tell you some truths.”

“Those were not truths!” he cried. Literally, tearfully. “They were just mean slander!”

“Mean? Maybe. Slander? Doubt it. Come with me, Ebenezer, as I use this magical tool to show you the Christmas that is today.”

“A purple vibrator?”

The ghost that was not Yahtzee paused and stared at the vibrator in his hand. “I’m sorry. This thing keeps popping up in my inventory.”


“Ah, there we go. Now this is the purple vibrator that can teleport us.” He twisted the device’s bottom and with a soft droning noise the surroundings suddenly changed, and Ebenezer found himself in the VisionActive offices where he worked, though he rarely came down to the cubicle level where he was.

“Behold, Ebenezer! Those people work for you. It is the day before Christmas and they are here, instead of celebrating with their families.”

“Oh, my! Even my hard and embittered heart grows cold at this sight...”

“Stop being sarcastic.”

“...when I think of the overtime I’ll have to pay them for working late, at a date no one told them to, because they want to polish the game they’re working on soon. It is indeed most tragic.”

“Mr. Ebenezer?”

One of the employees had noticed him, and news of his presence had spread through the cubicles. Contrary to popular belief, inside of VisionActive he was not seen as an evil dictator, but as an aerial executive whose immediate attention meant, yes, sometimes doom, but more often, incoming great success, or at least expectation thereof. Soon enough everyone was swarming around him.

“I thought the people in these trips weren’t able to see us”, he whispered to the Spirit in the middle of being explained some complex collision engine tech.

“I never said anything about that. Must’ve been the other guy.” replied Non-Yahtzee. “You should pay more attention to the EULA in the future.”

The employees used his presence as an excuse to take a break, and requested he make a short speech, which he did, praising the industriousness and fastidiousness of the people around, for willingly staying at work even though they hadn’t been ordered to - and he shot sly looks to the Spirit as he delivered it. There was a small round of applause and someone opened a warm bottle of champagne.

“By the way” said Ebenezer, “I don’t even know what game you are working on.”

“Football Game 2012.”

Ebenezer suddenly became serious. “Oh God. Oh God. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Well, it’s not a very unique game, but...”

“But it’s our main cash cow, isn’t it? What would you be working with, if you could? If I told you to create a project right now?”

The programmer hesitated a bit, then replied “I thought it’d be fun to have an asymetric war game of humans versus space alien insects, in which the humans played as an FPS but the bugs played as an RTS, because they had a hivemind.”

“That sounds like it’d be hell to balance.”

“It’d be a new thing, at least.”

He nodded, then turned to another one. “How about you?” He heard stories of a turn based gangster crime romp, and a Quantum Leap-inspired action adventure, a puzzle game about zero gravity, a single player sandbox in which the player was a comic book supervillain.”

At last, he returned to the Spirit. “I think I see it.”

“What? Don’t you praise their industriousness any more? Those people are working as hard as they can so that a bunch of pampered Europeans can prance around in virtual lawns, just like they have been doing for decades now.”

“I see.”

“Why can’t any of them work on the ideas they have?”

“Because... we don’t know if they’ll sell. We’ll publish one or two games like those in a year. If they sell, great, if not... well, we have things like the Football Game franchise which are guaranteed to sell and give us the liquidity we need to go through with more experimental franchises.”

“So you say, but when was the last time you published a game that really experimented?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. That supervillain game was great. We could publish that.”

“That was mine.”

“I think there’s room for- excuse me?”

“That was my idea. Well, Yahtzee’s I mean. He described a game like that called Mankind Has Yet to Recognize my Genius in his Saints’ Row 2 review.”

Ebenezer thought on that for a while, and realized the man that had described him that idea was an unimaginative asshole. When he reached this conclusion, he was already back in his room, and there was nothing more he could do about it.

(To be concluded...)   read

6:45 PM on 12.18.2011

A Gaming Carol, Part II: Gaming Past

(This is part II of a four-part series. The first part is here.)

(With effusive apologies to James Rolfe.)

Ebenezer had just started to drift into sleep when he started to hear someone swearing. He at first thought it might be some drunk passing by, but he remembered he was on his penthouse, so the drunk would need to have either a incredibly powerful voice or wings. He tried to roll around the bed and go back to sleep, but the thought of flying drunks had already roused his mind, so he decided he might as well get up and see what was up.

The swearing seemed to come from outside, so he moved towards his balcony. The phrase ‘swearing like a sailor’ came to his mind, but that wasn’t the case. This swearing was intense and purposeful, not the wild blasts of profanity the proverbial sailor might conjure up, but small, precise bursts of concentrated malcontent. Whoever it was, he wasn’t swearing like a sailor - he was swearing like a professional.

Ebenezer opened the curtains to his balcony and felt a sudden vertigo. The skyline beyond the glass doors was gone, replaced by a giant, cavernous hall, dominated by a brobdingnagian man sitting in a couch, who was the source of the swearing. Ebenezer stared in disbelief until the perspective suddenly clicked into place like the whitespace arrow in FedEx’ logo and he realized he was staring at his windows as if it were some sort of TV set.

“Fucking piece of shit!” the enormous man cried, before lunging towards the bedroom. Ebenezer cowered, but he didn’t reach for him with his huge King Kong hands; rather, he fiddled with something just below Ebenezer’s field of vision (a toaster?) and produced an NES cartridge the size of an economy car.

“This is shit! It’s pure, anadultered shit! It’s just a pile of fuck-covered diarrhea shit nuggets! It’s the most fucking annoying piece of shit I’ve ever seen in my life! Fuck this sorry cheap piece of fucking shit, it sucks diarrhea donkey dicks!”

He threw open the balcony door, and a moment later he was inside the room and of a regular size. He still held up the cartridge and showed it to Ebenezer, as if the old man was to blame.

“What is this crap? What is this piece of shit? Who let this fucking rotten skunk corpse of a diarrhea-covered shithouse into this world? How the fuck did this happen?”

Ebenezer looked at the cartridge and realized his face was on it. He read the name, hoping it might be Phalanx 2 or something, but no, it was called The Life and Times of Ebenezer Roberts. The man stared at him with an exagerated frown, and with a quick motion turned to the cartrige, firing CGI-like lasers at it until it blew in a fake-looking explosion. Somehow, seeing something that was so obviously added in post happen right in front of his eyes filled Ebenezer with a sense of dread, but just to drive the point home the man threw the cartridge’s ashes to the ground and proceeded to defecate copiously upon it.

“What... What is this? Who are you?”

“Oh, Ebenezer, guess what? I think you know who I am!”

He looked intently at his face. “Wait... yes, you’re that one kid that makes videos making fun of old games on the internet. Jim or something.”

“You’re thinking of James Rolfe, but although I may look like him, I am not him. I am the Spirit of Gaming Past, and in order to appear on this plane, I’ve taken the form of a character he has created and plays, the Angry Video Game Nerd.”

“So you are some sort of elemental representation of video games, and you took the form of an angry stereotypical nerd that swears profusely at everything?”


“Makes sense to me. Can you stop shitting on my carpet now?”

The Spirit drew himself up and closed his belt. “Eh, don’t worry, it’s just chocolate fudge. But anyway. Ebenezer, I shall show you your own past, with the aid of this magical tool.”

“Don’t do that.”

“No, Ebenezer, I must show you your past, so that-”

“You don’t understand. That magical tool is a Nintendo Power Glove. You’re going to make that stupid internet joke. Don’t.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

“You so were.”

“I’m a magical elemental spirit, not some sort of-”

“You are still going to do it, aren’t you?”

“Enough! You displease me, Ebenezer. We depart now!” He waved his gauntlet-wearing hand, which did absolutely nothing. “I mean... Now! Now! Now! Here! Open! This way! I’m opening the portal! Open, you fucking stupid thing! I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, is it too much to ask that you just make the fucking - oh, okay, there we go.”

The room beyond the balcony door became something else. Ebenezer approached. “I know this place.”

“You do, Ebenezer”, he said, pushing him through. “Ilovethepowergolveitssobad.”

“I heard that! Fuck you!”


“This is my old office! It was back when we were a small company. Look, we still have the old leather chairs, and the Amiga computers, and the old ad we run in 1989...”

He approached the window. "Look! There’s my old Geometro on the parking lot! And myself walking in with Marley and... wait.”

“This is the past, Ebenezer” the Spirit said. “You are about to meet yourself. Don’t worry, though. Your past selves cannot see or hear you or myself.”

Past Ebenezer then walked into the door, to present Ebenezer’s surprise regarding the precise amount of hair he had, or used to. They were talking excitedly.

“...the most elaborate text adventures to date! That was our best deal so far, Marley, getting to publish InfoWords will pay off right away.”

“Ebenezer, my old man, if that is the case, how did we buy them for so little? They were at bankruptcy's edge!”

“Because they are starry-eyed creators, not businessmen. We are. We just need to get their work to the public, and we’ll have a cut and their thanks.”

“You are a big fan of them, Ebenezer. I trust you are not allowing your personal preferences to guide your business decisions.”

“If I didn’t do that, Marley, I wouldn’t be working with computer games. Now help me write a letter to investors. I know just who will want to throw money at this.”

As the two men sat to work, present Ebenezer looked over their shoulder. “I remember this. They were my idols. And the deal paid off - for a while. Then text adventures went out of style, and they never quite got the grasp of point-and-click adventures. They were the first studio I had to close. They were five people, and I was sorry for each of them. I put them in other studios as I could. This year I closed a 200-people studio without blinking.”

“How long has it been since you’ve let your personal preferences guide your business decisions?”

He didn’t look back at the spirit. “I can’t. Not any more. We don’t do what we like any more, we do what the marketing people say we should do. If we don’t... then the game doesn’t sell, and we have to close down another studio, fire another 200 people. I have a responsibility.”

Ebenezer waited for the spirit to reply, but he didn’t, and when he turned back to look at him, he was back in his room, alone except for the giant chocolate fudge stain on his carpet.

(To be continued...)   read

7:04 PM on 12.14.2011

A Gaming Carol, Part I: Prologue

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. That’s because the house belonged to a game journalist, who was at the time getting shitfaced at his office party.

“Ladies and gentleman!” shouted chief editor Russell to a crowd composed more of the former, and even then pushing the definition.”We here at the Escape Artist online magazine have, for almost ten years now, celebrated the growth of gaming culture. We watched as games became more elaborate and showed their potential to be true art. We witnessed as they were less and less accepting of adolescent drivel and seeked out to find meaningful experience. We saw the gaming nerd stereotype be shattered as the world recognized most gamers are responsible people with families and children.”

His word filled the room with expectation. They expected him to shut up soon. Someone shouted a half-hearted ‘yay’, obviously out of fear that he would try to remedy the crowd’s apathy through further discourse.

“Of course”, he continued, “we here still fit the stereotype, because we are here playing Rhythm Heaven and getting drunk instead of celebrating with our annoying families. To a gaming Christmas!”

The roar the followed was as genuine as the previous ‘yay’ hadn’t been, and the crowd returned to its stated purpose of playing Rhythm Heaven and getting drunk, preferably not in that order. But just then, the office’s double doors were flung open, and an aging man in a snow-spotted trenchcoat entered the room, being accompanied by a cold gust of wind and a tiny maelstrom of ice. He walked inside and held up a basket.

“Merry Christmas. I brought you a press kit” he said in the same tone one might say “I run over your cat, but that’s OK, I’m rich.”

Russel approached and took the basket from him in a gesture bordering on diplomatic. “It is a honor” he said, trying his hardest not to make that sound sarcastic, “to be visited in person by one of the most profilic men in gaming, the CEO of VisionActive, Enebezer Roberts.”

“It is a pleasure to be here”, Ebenezer replied, being far more successful in not sounding sarcastic. “We had some logistics issues this year, and I felt it was a good opportunity to meet some of the people who have been... less than fully supportive of our company’s efforts.”

“Oi, real sorry here, chap” shouted a shrill voice from near the punch, in a heavy British accent. “We should maybe be more like those other so-called news outlets who are getting paid to review yer games the right way, ain’t that right?”

The crowd at the party parted like a Biblical metaphor, exposing a rotund man, who was now moving towards the new guest in the purposeful but wavering path of the angry drunk.

“That’s quite a serious accusation”, Ebenezer returned. “I assume you, as a renowed journalist, has undeniable proof.”

“Oh sure, just let me call my industry contacts here... Oh wait, my mistake, they’re not industry contacts any more, because you bought out their studios and then closed them. That’s proof you are a prick, not of - urp, of that other thing we were just talking about.”

“I assume you have put together an elaborate chart showing how those studios wouldn’t have gone bankrupt had we not purchased them? For I remember buying them for cheap.”

“Oh yeah? Must’ve been a real bargain, unlike buying all the crap DLC for your crap franchises! Except you put out sequels that are more like DLC and DLC that are more like pulling stuff from the bloody game! Why can’t you pass the saving on to us, ya big fat prick?”

Ebenezer dropped the act. It fell with a thud.

“It’s easy for you to say, isn’t it? All you need to do is to sit there and complain about every little thing we do. We release a new game, it’s ‘Ebenezer Roberts Milks Another Franchise Dry’. We push downloadable games, it’s ‘Ebenezer Roberts Finds Another Way to Push Blood Money’. We donate money to charity, it’s ‘Ebenezer Roberts’ Evil Cannot Be so Easily Forgiven’. You may know all about gaming, but you know nothing about business, and gaming is my business!”

There was a short but deep silence, enough to pierce the veil of drunkenness, until the large reporter responded, in a quiet voice, “It’s more than a business to us.”

Ebenezer made a pause before responding. “What is your name, boy?”

“Tim Sterling, but on the site I usually sign Tiny Tim.”

“Well, let me explain what is wrong with you, Tiny Tim. You want your big million-dollar interactive experiences, but you can’t stand the idea that we’ll need to spend multiple millions to deliver them, is that right? Bah! Humbug! Art doesn’t feed anyone, and doesn’t pay the salaries I have to pay, my boy. When you take down all the ads in your site for the sake of the purity of the gaming journalism experience, then you can lecture me!”

He stepped back to the center of the room, looked around, and decided not to care about whether or not he had made an impression. “And now, I must be off. Merry Christmas.”

After he left, the awkward silence stayed back like an awkward something else, until someone remembered to ask Tim why the fuck he was talking in a British accent if he was from Mississipi, and he said he’d been playing Killing Floor too much for the new Christmas achievements, and in a storm of ‘DOSH’ and ‘GUVNAH’ the party clicked back into gear.


Ebenezer Roberts was a hardened man, not one to linger on what is past, but that Christmas night he spent some time as he stared out of his humble penthouse thinking about what he had heard.

“Ah, it’s nothing” he said to no one in particular. “They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“I don’t know. They might be right” someone in particular replied. This caused Ebenezer to scream, for there was no one else with him in the house, in particular or not. As he turned to meet his uninvited guest, he was glad to see it wasn’t a robber or kidnapper, when he stopped freaking out over the fact that he was floating and transparent.

“Marley?” he stuttered, recognizing the ethereal face.

“It is I, Ebenezer” the apparition replied.

“Marley? My old business partner?”

“No, Ebenezer. It is I, Bob Marley. What’s up, mon.”

“Bob Marley? What are you doing in my bedroom?”

“Of course I’m your old business partner, Ebenezer. I was being sarcastic. That may not have carried well with my ethereal, ghostly voice.”

“Marley! What are you doing still here?”

“Mark me, Ebenezer! I bring thee grave advice on which depends the well being of your immortal soul!”

“By God, Marley! What is it?”

“Stop being a dick!”

Ebenezer felt deflated, even though he wasn’t the one who had been floating. “Very nice, buddy. Specific. I’ll fix up my life by tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sorry. I wouldn’t have done a thing if a ghost had come calling when I was alive, either. But then you die and next thing you know you’re wandering the world of the living wrapped in chains and carrying a tiny lockbox. Or in my case a novelty lockbox shaped like an N64 controller, because I was evil to gamers I guess? You think when you die someone will come along and explain the mysteries of life and death and the universe, but nope. You’re a ghost now, deal.”

“That sounds... inconvenient. Sorry, friend.”

The ghost shrugged, causing it to bob softly in midair. “I know this, though. You will be visited by three ghosts tonight.”

“Who are the other two?”

“You will be visited by three other ghosts tonight. I hope they are more convincing than me, for your sake. And I hope you take off that ridiculous nightcap you’re wearing.”

“What? This is my lucky nightcap!” It was a light blue nightcap, as long as Ebenezer was tall and with a fluffy white pom-pom at the end. “It belonged to my grandfather!”

“That’s not surprising it all. It belongs to the 1930’s. Probably in a cartoon character’s head.”

Ebenezer took off his nightcap and inspected it, and when he lifted his head to retort the image of his dead partner was completely gone. He looked around for a while, until he decided to just go to bed, as he was probably imagining things, and even if he wasn’t a ghost that shows up in the dead (heh) of the night shouldn’t expect people to stay up for him. He defiantly put his nightcap back on and tucked himself in.

(To be continued...)   read

7:25 PM on 12.07.2011

Jim Sterling versus the world

So last week Jim Sterling found exception with the fact that John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun called Modern Warfare 3 an un-game, and there was almost as much vitriol flying from his loving/hating/kismesisshipping fanbase as there was when he said on a review that he liked it to begin with. Jim eventually admitted that he might be taking things out of proportion and that Walker’s comments might have only meant the game offers fewer interactive options than a game is supposed to. Jim is therefore a greater man than I, in both humility and girth, for I shall not bow to the reasonable demands of the unwashed masses: his outrage was entirely warranted, for when John Walker coined the term un-game, he was speaking in the complex language known as High Critic, in which every word meant to describe subjective opinion has layers upon layers of meaning that can only be grasped by those with as extensive a background as the speaker. Jim does speak High Critic (even if when not writing a review he prefers the simpler dialect of Dick English) and therefore understood the term as it was meant: a devastating insult that reduces the game’s accomplishments to nothing. It was not a mere complaint, as it would be calling it ‘cinematic’ while winking at the viewer: it said that the game had nothing in which that could define it as a game, and nothing else to offer.

His level of outrage was therefore warranted, even if you disagree with his viewpoint. I don’t, because I haven’t played MW3 and nor do I give a fuck. But, it drew my attention the fact that Jim repeatedly says people are hating on MW3 only because it is famous. It’s not the first time he said that: on the Fat Tits podtoid, (which has this name because Jim was called Fat Tits over his positive MW3 review, and therefore is illustrated with a pair of fat tits wearing a military camo jacket, which is just brilliant), Jim first brought up this idea. Which on both accounts made me think: wow, I must be missing all the people hating on Skyrim.

And on Deus Ex Revolution. And Portal 2. And...

It’s not like all of those games were perfect on their own right. Skryim sure has a bunch of hummingbird dragons. Deus Ex’s bosses were so bad that after it was discovered that they had been outsourced to Grip Entertainment every Grip employee has had recurring dreams in which they are being chased by a mob wielding pitchforks and Virtual Boys. And Portal 2 was a great game, but some people may feel it had too much rape. And sure enough, I’ve seen people say they don’t like these games, often over these very complaints even those who love them admit exist. Why only in the case of Modern Warfare 3 do these people coalesce in one consistent group?

Of course, Jim admits that some people might not enjoy MW3, and that they are entitled to their opinion. Only as long, though, as they keep the gaping diseased dick-sucking station their orthodonthist mercifully refers to as a mouth firmly shut, for the moment they decide to open it and vomit their vile thoughts upon a God-fearing, MW3-loving audience, they are mindless hipster contrarians.

It didn’t use to be this way. In the past, peer pressure only worked one way. You liked what everyone else liked, or you were weird. Whatever people were into had their fanbase exponentially multiplied by hanger-ons whose ‘it’s alright’ would morph into wild devotion by osmosis. Pockets of counter-culture have always existed, but due to some strange socioalchemy over the last century they have become more acceptable, expected even. The hipster subculture is the apex of this strange evolution; a zenith to mainstream culture, just as pliable to the fickle changes of faction, only reacting them in the opposite way. Now instead of people liking things because they’re popular, they like them because they’re not, and vice versa.

The thing is, remember those people who only liked what was popular because it was popular? That’s not a thing that stopped existing for some reason. There are people who will attach themselves to labels regardless of their true thoughts, and as long as such labels exist on both sides which one they’ll choose will depend only on where they stand.

It’s just a damn convenient excuse to wrap up everyone who thinks differently from you into some sort of stereotype, especially when it’s one based on truth, and forget that those people also exist on your side, inflating your numbers as well. To assume everyone who disagrees with you is simply following the lead of the dullest member of that group - instead of the other way around - serves no reason but to stifle any honest discussion. We gain nothing from dismissing dissenting opinions, but we have everything to gain from trying to understand the other side and why it thinks differently? Shouldn’t we all do that?

Well, not us. I haven’t played MW3. It sucks. Probably.   read

11:58 AM on 11.20.2011

Zelda Week: Good Samaritan

Majora's Mask is the best Zelda game ever. I never played it to the end, and since I started playing games on the N64 and have an irrational hatred of handhelds there are way more Zelda games that I didn't even play, but I won't take those things into consideration when making my statement, for such is not the Internet way. Majora's Mask = best. Disagree and I will fight you.

In fact, I liked Majora's Mask so much that I was certain that within a few years it'd be its own genre. There'd be scores of para-apocalypse games in which you had a certain time to prevent the world from going belly up with the help of magical time reversal doodads. Of course, now I know that's a silly thing to think - there's no way that a certain thing will become widely used itself because it's the hallmark of a famous game. Unless that game is Grand Theft Auto. Or Halo. Or Gears of War. Anyway, shut up.

There are many who disliked MM because of the constantly ticking clock towards destruction, but that was one of my favourite things in the game. It was one of the few games that successfully conveyed the gravitas of a world-destroying event. Most games have a laid-back approach to their Big Evil, saying that the world is about to come to an end and time is of the essence while winking at you and suggesting it's OK to go exploring the Forest of General Unpleasant Events to find the secret clearing where the Particularly Antisocial Vendor will give you the quest for the Incredibly Overpowered Sword of Unnecessary Adjectives. It's just video game logic, but for weirdoes like me who like to roleplay a bit it ruins our mental immersion. On the other hand, sometimes games drop a timed scenario on our heads - oh no, this castle is going to blow up in precisely two minutes and thirty seconds! - which was too sense to convey anything approaching actual urgency. Majora's middle of the road approach worked perfectly - the countdown is a bit more than an hour - almost two and a half once you learn the song to slow down time, which is pretty early on the game - and inserted in a context that gives you ilimited retries on limited time. You are always short on time on Majora's Mask, but it never seems like time ever actually runs out, even though it's very obvious it could.

Thinking of that, I notice how Zelda games seem to be taking new and unexpected directions with their otherwise straightforward plots for a long time. Games nowadays seem to be trying to beat the cliché and take their stories to brave new places where TV Tropes could not expect them, only to run headfirst into another cliché, or to find out why the cliché they were running from had become a cliché in the first place. Quietly and unassumingly, Zelda had been doing that for a long time. Majora's Mask came on the heels of Ocarina of Time, a game in which after you have found the Three Thingamajigs you found out that the bad guy had expected this to happen all along and now you've helped him win, and you're ushered seven years after the beginning of his evil domain of evil. Granted, in those seven years Ganon didn't manage to do anything towards the highly defended settlements of Kakariko Village or Lon Lon Ranch, but the idea is there. And don't get me started on the massive twist ending of Link's Awakening (because I haven't played it and would need to bullshit my way through that conversation).

But there is something that I had always found frustrating about the game's scenario. You see, while nowadays having grey antiheroes with cloudy motivations is the default state of a game story, there was a time when game heroes were assumed to be The Good Guy. It didn't matter how many enemy soldiers/ninjas/knights/dogs/birds he had to kill to get through a level, he was there to Do Good and it just happened that God's unique gift to him had been that of violence. I didn't mean to kill all those ninjas, but I had to save the President! GTA taught us that gamers are actually little bastards and want nothing more than to cause mayhem, but before that that mayhem was contextualized as actions that helped the hero along its path of goodness. Link, who remains a goody-two-shoes to this day, was a clear example of that. Of course, gamers would do all the crap that the useless bunch of NPCs asked Link to do because they knew they'd be rewarded, but that was always metacontext; the NPCs almost never promised anything, and Link helped him out of the kindness of his heart, and for this kindness was rewarded with all sorts of crap. Every single one of those transactions was a little fable in itself, of goodwill rewarded.

Not in Termina. With the time being rewound after every three days, every good deed would be erased the next time you reached the end of the loop. This goes from the major events that arose from finishing the dungeons to the tiny things, like saving Pamela's father or the Bomb Shop lady. It's even specially evil that the hardest good samaritan quest, reuniting Anju and Kafei, is completed a few seconds before the moon crashes - three days' worth of effort for one second worth of joy that instantly never existed. (Yes, I know that the ending presumes that all of Link's efforts somehow happened in the same timeline and everyone he helped was helped. I didn't finish the game - all I saw was everyone getting rescrewed back into the way they were.) I like grey-morality anti-heroes as much as the next brown-haired handsome guy with a gravely voice, but Link was supposed to be better than this, and for this one game, he wasn't.

At least the lottery guy liked getting scammed.   read

8:13 PM on 11.16.2011

Rantview: The Binding of Isaac

Look, up on the internet! Is it a rant? Is it a review? It’s both! It’s... a rantview!

...Well, that sounds awful. Is there no better portmanteau? A... reviant? Eh, never mind, it’s already on the title. Ladies and Gentleman, The Binding of Isaac.

The way I feel about Team Meat in regards to the indie community is similar to the way I feel about Valve in regards to the mainstream community: I think they’re great, they have a bunch of great games that aren’t afraid to thread new ground, and I’m glad this amount of success came to someone who knows how to use it to the betterment of all, but I just can’t stand the one game they have to thank for all that. The Half-Life series and Super Meat Boy are two highly successful games that I would personally describe as ‘drab’, and while I could write an entire essay on what HL does wrong I can’t put my finger on why I don’t care for SMB. This could cause someone to immediately assume that it’s because I suck and can’t win at a REALLY hard game, but that’s not the case - I enjoyed VVVVV immensely, and I didn’t find SMB boring so much because of the dying, but because the winning felt just as good as the dying, which is to say, not as much.

Of course, Binding is not actually by Team Meat, but rather a joint effort by Edmund “Half of Team Meat” McMillan and Florian “Presumed Code Monkey” Himsl. However, it’s easy to forget that difference given the similarites the game has with the almost palindromic group’s creations. McMillan’s art still looks like, well, McMillan’s art, of course, but on top of that the game seems to take a bite of old games and, in some sort of horrible ornithologic metaphor, makes it palatable for modern audiences. If Super Meat Boy was an exercise in making a game with unforgiving difficulty (or Nintendo Hard, for those in the know) feel more fun than frustrating, Binding’s idea is to make a game evoking the era before saving existed and make people actually want to play it.

The game’s main draw is its dark and dire story. Outside of this game, the Binding of Isaac is a rather controversial passage in the Bible, in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a proof of faith; Abraham is about to comply when an angels stops him and presumably says ‘lol jk’. The idea that a loving and caring God would just outright tell someone to kill their son right away can be quite jarring even for the Old Testament, and myriad interpretations have sprung up by theologists throughout the ages. The game springboards out of this concept: Isaac is the son of a devoutly Christian middle aged woman who one day ‘hears the voice of God’ which commands her to rid her son of sin. (Some sources say she has gone insane; the game is mercifully more ambiguous on its telling.) She starts by ridding him of all his toys, then all of his possessions, leaving him buck naked; then she locks him in his room; then, having finally rid him of all sin, she is commanded to kill him as a final proof of faith. Isaac, however, sees this coming, and jumps down a trap door into the basement, which turns out to be a Zelda style dungeon.

Or maybe Isaac is just imagining all this as he’s locked in his room forbidden from doing anything. Either you see it as a disturbing extended metaphor or as the dreams of a genuinely traumatized child, it works.

This heaviness remains present in the game itself. Isaac’s only starting weapon is his sadness - literally, as he cries at enemies to damage them. Most enemies look like deformed children in one way or another; those that don’t are usually things connected to death, such as flies and maggots. Isaac himself will usually become one of those abominations, since most items and power-ups in the game will cause an aesthetic change to his character, usually taking the place of bloody wounds, tumor-like deformities, demonic horns and generally unpleasant stuff. Most, anyway; some items add more mundane things to his appearance, like surgical masks or weird hats, so whether your Isaac at the end game will look like the Devil’s bastard son after rolling down some stairs or a superhero even the Silver Age wouldn’t touch will depend on how the dice rolls. The fact that there’s a series of items that are supposed to be ‘dressing up with mom’s stuff’, such as mom’s high heel shoes and mom’s underwear, add to the idea that this whole disturbing thing is just some troubled kid’s idea of fun.

This oppressing feel seems to have been the guiding stone in the game’s design, as many things, from the structure of the roguelike gameplay to the claustrophobic art direction, come together to reinforce that. One example that underlines this is the enemy called Mulligan. Looking like a child with tumorous growths on its head, once you stop freaking out at every room and shooting everything moving you’ll realize that it doesn’t chase you. In fact, they slowly run away from you while crying. They have no way to damage you unless you run into them, but when they die they spawn several flies, which unlike the Mulligans will chase you down and damage you. Therefore, they are harmless and killing them replaces them with something that isn’t, making killing a crying child bad in both concept and gameplay.

You still have to kill every single one you encounter, since a room’s doors are locked until they are cleared of enemies. Take that, Bioshock!

The idea of combining that feel with roguelike-style random room generation is one of those ideas that seem really obvious when someone else has thought of it. Most retro games are mere appeals to nostalgia made by people too lazy to do vector art. That is not Binding’s case: its retro-ness is not just a shallow paintjob but a guiding core principle, and it feels like an old game despite having modern graphics and design sensibilities. This improvement goes both ways: the roguelike experience is much more streamlined than you can get from a more traditional ASCII based title. You cannot go back to previous floors, and once a level is clear no more enemies spawn, so you’ll never arrive at the point in which you’ll feel the need to become all powerful and you have to start farming dragon jelly for a cloak of lightning redirection because you don’t have electricity resistance yet. The moment in which things are going awry and you are scrambling to improvise with what you have is not a saving grace to keep newbies playing as it is in NetHack; it’s always lurking a couple of screw-ups away, and you have to keep your wits about you to survive.

This is not to say it’s not possible to grow stronger in Binding; many items can be found throughout the game that somehow make Isaac more powerful. These items are rather rare, outside of a few locations where one of them is guaranteed to appear, and which ones you’ll run into is a completely random selection. This essentially means there is no higher metagame where you have to figure out the best possible build; rather, you have to figure out how to play as well as possible with the build you’re dealt. You can have as much ‘passive’ items as you can lay your grubby little hands on, and some of them have negative effects to go with the positive, but it’s usually a better idea to take them as you go. There are also ‘active’ items that can be used by pressing Spacebar and then will take some time to recharge; they are the equivalent of Zelda items like the boomerang, although in this game it’ll probably be a dead cat’s head or something along those lines. There are also one-use items, which include tarot cards and pills. The pills are an item that harkens back to roguelikes the most: unlike other items, their effects are randomly attributed in each game, and the only way to find what a specific pill does is to take them. Some of them are outright bad, some outright good, and some are a mixed blessing, such as the ‘explosive diarrhea’ pill that causes you to drop a bunch of lit bombs and is as useful as you are aware it’ll happen.

Rounding out this selection are more mundane resources, such as pennies (currency), bombs and keys, whose effective rationing is paramount for... wait. That picture, up there. What’s written on it again?

Pills here? Pills here?


Okay, let me get this straight. Edward McMillan makes a game effectively about child abuse, and he thought that an appropriate way to introduce one of its most interesting mechanics was through the use of a stupid internet meme. That’s just fantastic.

Now, I’m not saying that the game should be all WOE IS ME FOR I AM TRAUMA all the time. In any narrative, it’s important to balance out the lightness and the heaviness. If you don’t put something heavy in a light work, you’ll end up with something vapid. And if you don’t put something light in a heavy work, it becomes depression porn. Light and heavy must be balanced.

Either way, adding something as a light element does not excuse it from being in line with the gravitas of the rest of your work. This doesn’t appear to be lost in McMillan: for instance,when you die, you are greeted with the child’s account of the events, prefaced with ‘Dear diary, today I died’ and with childish drawings of the enemy that killed you and the items you had in your possession. It’s tragic, but innocent and cute. Internet memes, on the other hand, have no conception of tragedy or heaviness; they are merely familiarity. This is not the only internet meme in the game - there is also a ‘Shoop da Woop’ and a shovel called ‘We Need to go Deeper’ - but it’s the most common, and it’s unsettling.

Much like a time-traveling George Lucas, the presence of this item forces a recontextualization of many elements in the game. For instance: this game has poop. It has a lot of poop. It’s everywhere and it largely fulfills the same role as the vases in Zelda, and when they are destroyed they become a happy face made of poop. Now, this, combined with the decision to place the poop mostly at the corner of the rooms, puts us in the mindset of a child trapped in its room, having not to play with but their own feces, with the happy face being in grisly juxtaposition with the means of its making. Or maybe it’s just a poop joke. Which one is PILLZ HERE closest to? Another, worse thing: a passive item is called ‘wooden spoon’, which increases Isaac’s speed by 2, and its cosmetic effect are scars that appear on his face. The subtext is obvious. It may be a window into the mind of an abused child showing how they integrate their trauma into their worldview, focusing on nonexistent positives to try to get through the day. Or it may be just a dark humour joke. Hey, there’s also an item called The Nail, maybe it has you walk in circles?

It’s hard to figure out what McMillan was thinking when he put those in. Maybe the game’s main theme is sincere, and he actually thought those jokes were a funny thing to put in. “Isn’t it awful,” he asks, putting a hand on our shoulders, “how some people might come to treat their children because of their beliefs? Let us meditate on that while we laugh at that kid being beat up with a wooden spoon.” Or maybe it’s the opposite and he doesn’t realize the enormity of his chosen theme. Religion has this polarizing effect of either being a sacred cow you must never challenge for mainstream culture, and of being this acceptable target because believers and mindless sheep anyway for counterculture, with neither putting forward any points that can be actually discussed. Maybe that’s why he forgot that, religious undertones or not, his game was still about child abuse, and some restraint is recommended. Or maybe... maybe he is trolling us.

Are you trolling us, Edward McMillan?

In a way, I guess I had this coming. I’m one of those video game hipsters who will prefer a weird as hell game to a polished development to an old idea, even if the latter are often objectively better. And many who are like me consider themselves to be above the crowd mentality of the mainstream crowd, unable to be swayed by targeted advertisements and marketing data points. But that’s not true, is it? We hipsters can be swayed just as easily, just with different things. To trick the mainstream crowd show of a blonde girl with huge boobs, to trick the hipsters show a redhead smirking.

In the end, I’ve been tricked. I thought this game was something and it was something else entirely. And the worst part - the real kick when I’m down - is that it’s a really good game. An excellent game. If it was a bad game, I could dismiss it as a cash grab, but everything that it set out to do it did masterfully. And now I’m hurt and I don’t know why and I keep playing it. So maybe this game was art after all, just not what I had wanted it to be - it’s a commentary on myself, and on itself, and on all of the people who would willingly buy a game about a child crying at malformed children. For that, I give it 4.5 out of 5 Eberts.


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