This is My Kid on Games

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Recently I sat down with my eldest daughter to talk to her about video games. We play a lot of games in our house, and I was curious how she thought about the games she played, and how they affected her. At seven and a half, she's just getting the hang of console games, and has shown a great aptitude for PC adventure games.

My daughters playing The Maw. The youngest suggests going left. 

Her responses were mostly brief, but I found them very interesting. Here's what she had to say.

Strip Search; the First Earnest Reality Show

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Last week, Strip Search, the webcomic centered reality show from Penny Arcade drew to a close. From the original twelve, only three remained and as painful as it was, only one could emerge the winner.

Strip Search was a very interesting thing to watch. I was very cautious about watching it, accustomed as I am to the "real housewife" style of reality TV. Which is to say, I expected thrown chairs, raked nails, screeching obscenities, chauvinist posturing and baby eating. Alright, maybe not the last one, but if you've spent more than five minutes in front of any TV and you're certainly aware of the behavior I speak of.

After so many years of this all too common theme across every possible network and seeing it bring to ruin more than one of my favorite channels I worried that Strip Search would bring those same abhorrent behaviors to Penny Arcade.

After scarcely four episodes, it became apparent that Strip Search was a different animal. The contestants were respectful of each other. Throughout the entire series, no personal conflict was highlighted or even immediately apparent.

In Which I Discover I Subconciously Hate Myself

Friday, June 21, 2013
There has to be something seriously wrong with me. The current games I'm playing are a perfect suicidal trifecta. A shortcut to terminal depression and trauma. These three games are finely crafted all, but perfectly suited to munching on my withered shell after they've destroyed me.

What trio of horrors do I speak of? What three games could combine in such a way that they could lead a man down a dark path? Is Superman 64 among them? No, it isn't, though I will not deny that games ability to crush a soul in mere minutes. 

I am currently playing Dark Souls, The Walking Dead and The Last of Us. Together. If I am too tired or burnt out on one, I will play another. I'm like an addict trying to kick his habit by using different crack pipes. It's all still crack, and it's still fucking me up, but I just don't know any better.  

This all started after I was given a copy of Dark Souls for my birthday. It's a punishing game made more so due to a long stint without using my PS3. My initial ineptitude with the controller cost me a lot of time, though I feel like I'm finally starting to get the hang of it. Once I realized that the only way I can really lose is by not playing, accepting my inevitable multiple gruesome demises was easy. It's the backtracking to recover my corpse that is the most grueling part of the experience. Especially considering that all the enemies respawn after I rest at a bonfire.

Overcoming the difficulty inherent in Dark Souls was probably the easiest of all the issues raised by my recent sessions. The Walking Dead has been far more difficult to deal with on the whole. At least in Dark Souls it was my death that I dealt with over and over again. In any given episode of The Walking Dead, I'm sure to have to decide between someone, somewhere. And the person I don't side with will either die or hate me forever. 

I remember talking to one of the developers of The Walking Dead at PAX around the release of episode three. When I asked him if he had any advice for playing that episode, he told me "drink. There are no happy endings this time." And my god, was he ever right. 

Of the three games, The Last of Us has made porridge of my insides more that either Dark Souls or The Walking Dead. Mostly in that I feel incredibly vulnerable all the time. On the advice of an article from Kotaku, I've been playing the game on Hard rather than normal. It's certainly punishing me for it, but the experience is really unlike any other game in recent memory. 

The atmosphere in The Last of Us (aided by the incredible, brilliant, beautiful musical talent of Gustavo Santaolalla) has made me feel small and helpless constantly. I am no match for most for the beasties out there, and when I have supplies and ammo I still try to save them. The Last of Us has forced me to understand the seriousness of limited resources. I'm delighted most times to just have a brick. 

I expect to be reduced to a quivering mass by the  time I've completed these games. I don't think this will be over soon, in fact I know it won't. The Walking Dead is hard to play for long stretches of time, mostly due to having children running around the house (same goes for The Last of Us) and Dark Souls stifles my spirit so effectively that I can usually only play for about an hour or two at most. 

Wish me luck, and expect a darker man than I to emerge on the other side of this. When you see that dead look in my eyes, read this and remember. I was once like you.

Endure and Survive. 

Miles Away is Spot On

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Maxwell Miles has an introduction familiar with many a comic enthusiast. An awkward teen, Max feels out of place in school. A bit of a social pariah, Max does have an extraordinary talent. He can mimic anything he sees, though he needs five minutes to absorb and implement the things he sees. Anything, from playing basketball against players twice his size, to dodging the powerful blasts of attacking aliens, Max can do it all, given the time.

               This is the opening of Miles Away, the new graphic novel from actor, musician and writer Anthony Montgomery. While you are most likely familiar with Anthony Montgomery from his role as Ensign Mayweather on Star Trek: Enterprise, Miles Away has been a long time project of Mr. Montgomery. 

Originally envisioned as a television series, Miles Away has been translated well into comic form. Many other film to / television to comic translations come out reading like nothing more than loose storyboards with stumbling dialogue. Miles Away distinguishes itself with clever, witty writing from Montgomery and Brandon Easton and great art from Jeff Stokely and Jey Odin.

Miles Away reads quickly. We only just get acquainted with Max before the story shifts to another part of the universe. We are introduced to a brash alien prince and his sister, heirs to a gleaming kingdom built on the promise of protection from an ancient evil. Not long after we are familiarized with these characters, the novel is over. 

I have to say, the end of the novel was the one disappointment I had with Miles Away. I am no novice when it comes to graphic novels, however. I know that this is how the game works. Well, Mr. Montgomery, you've won this round. 

I am sold on Miles Away. Though I had my doubts when I first heard of Max's ability, Montgomery and Easton have integrated it so well, that it never felt out of place. It's a difficult ability to work into a traditional graphic novel format, but the potential for a "margin of error" in the titular characters ability added depth and suspense to the story. 

Some of the tertiary characters were a bit less fleshed out, and I found myself wondering more about their own origins. This is not a problem with Miles Away specifically, but more an inevitable consequence of the format. Introductory issues are meant to leave readers with questions.

It's been a long road for Mr. Montgomery to get Miles Away this far. All that time and struggle has paid off in a graphic novel that you can tell was a labor of love. There is serious depth and motivation in these characters. Max is not some archetypal angsty teen; instead we are given a character that reads as a caring, if naive and impulsive person. The conflict in the novel come across as real and the characters show a real investment in the issues they face.

Miles Away is a solid graphic novel. I highly recommend it. I enjoyed it's wit and artistic polish. The layouts were exciting and showcased the action very well. The characters are interesting and Miles' powers are unique and very well meshed into the story. It's a great read for adults but not too violent for younger readers. Whether a veteran of graphic novels or looking for an introduction, Miles Away is certainly worth reading. 

My Wife is a Grinder

Thursday, June 13, 2013
My wife and I have our own play styles. In most fps titles, she is a bruiser, charging into the fray to engage with smgs and shotguns blazing. I prefer to hang back with a precision weapon, waiting for the perfect shot. we occasionally switch up, but for the most part our play styles compliment each other well.

We are both experienced players. Our skill sets are well developed but each of us has their own particular key talents. I'm a more tactical player, my wife is gutsy and great at supporting her teammates. She has one talent that I have never been able to touch. My wife can grind like she's made of sandstone.

This is not my wife literally, but figuratively.

I've seen it time and time again. She'll sit down in front of a game like Fable or Skyrim (or Ni No Kuni at the moment) and she will focus on one task for hours. In Pokemon, she will endlessly fight wilds, even lower level ones, and rack up a ridiculous amount of XP. I watched her spend four hours just filling beer steins in Fable II. She will wander the mountains of skyrim for ages, either killing everything she sees for xp, or crafting more and more incredible items. 

I can't touch her patience level for grinding. She's been at it for years, but she says it just sort of came naturally to her. As best as she can recall, the first time she tried grinding was playing Links Awakening. Early in the game, she spent a solid week just chopping up grass and pots in one area - over and over again- until she decided she had enough money. With that, she was able to buy the shovel before she even entered the Mysterious Woods.

One of her peak achievements happened long ago, when Neopets was a new thing. She decided one day to become the queen of Fuzzles, a small and -at the time- fairly pointless item used here and there for quests. Day after day, she bought out the cheaper merchants stock of fuzzles and would then sell them for just a fraction less than the next lowest price. Once those sold, she would use the profits to do it again with the next tier, essentially "leap frogging" her prices until she had the only fuzzles on the market. She did this for weeks. The price of  fuzzles skyrocketed, and my wife made a tidy sum. Months after she stopped playing the game, the price of fuzzles remained in the high 40's to 50's, more than ten times their original selling price. The price has since leveled out, but my wife's foray into market cornering was pretty incredible.

Games she grinds for generally need to have an engaging story for her to put in the effort. MMO's focus on grinding would seem to be a natural fit for her, but for the most part, the common lack of immersive stories turn her off them pretty quickly. 

Why does she do it? Why spend hours on hours, working the same area of the game for 5 rupees at a time, or putting in a full shift cutting wood? She says that she just hates not having enough money, or not being able to advance the story because she's too low level to move on.
While my wife made millions, I spent most of my time like this.

I can't do it. I've tried. At most I can put in an hour before I have to turn the game off. Her zen like ability to sit and repeat is second to none that I know. The most frustrating thing for me, is that because it just came naturally to her, my wife doesn't have any advice for people like me that struggle with grinding so much. She's as clueless as I am when it comes to explaining how she achieves her meditative calm. It's not all bad though; she does offer to help me out from time to time. 

What Happened to Ryse?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
Microsoft showcased a great deal of games yesterday at E3. Out of all of them, Ryse: Son of Rome seemed to get the most actual screen time. A third person action game set in ancient Rome, Ryse: Son of Rome has already been called the father of quicktime events. 

While the general concensus seems to be "meh" I will admit that I had a very strong reaction to the demo Microsoft showed. I was sorely disappointed. 

Back in 2011, when the Kinect was still new, Microsoft showed this trailer at E3. This was Ryse. A Kinect based game, Ryse put you in the role of a Roman soldier, fighting everything from fellow Romans to Visigoths. Using the Kinect, players would use Gladius and Scutum, Pilum, and even your bare hands in combat. From what I had learned from the limited press available, I learned a little more about the title.

The developers stated that they had worked to create a game that used period accurate weapons and combat techniques to create a more realistic, immersive experience for the player. While the trailer exhibited a fair amount of pageantry (slashing with a Gladius, a weapon made for stabbing, not to mention throwing it) there were some fairly accurate bits I picked out of the trailer.

First off, I should remind you, dear readers that I've spent a great deal of time researching martial history, especially that of the sword. It fascinates me, both from my perspective as a fencer and as an historical enthusiast. I'm not an expert, but I know a few things about Roman  warfare. Thinking of the Kinect and my knowledge of Roman combat and tactics, I was excited to be able to see how they would translate into the game.

Sadly, after yesterday, this is what we are left with. The order and genius of the Roman military reduced to a shoulder button command. Spinning and slashing ridiculously, hell, they don't even wear the sword on the right side. I don't yet know if this is Microsoft looking for a God of War to call their own, but it's painfully obvious that much of that touted eye for accuracy was left some time ago.

The beach you see above is supposedly Dover (Though most would tell you that ancient Dover was called Dubris). That is most certainly not Dover in any way. The largest Roman structure built in Dover was an 80 foot lighthouse. The most fortified the area ever was under Roman rule was nothing more than earthworks. The imposing castle seen in the demo wasn't built until the 12th century. And it's still mentioned in this very recent interview with Gamespot that historical accuracy is an important aspect of the game for them.

I'm afraid it's too late for Ryse. A shame too, considering that I had such high hopes for it so early on. If you're looking for an accurate depiction of Roman warfare, you're better off watching Pauly D fight.

I Fell in Love with Quadrilaterals

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Thomas Was Alone was one of a handful of games I picked up with the Humble Bundle 8. Described as a "minimalistic puzzle platformer," I found myself in charge of a small red rectangle named Thomas. And he was indeed alone, though not for long. Within the first hour of play, I encountered four 4 other quadrilaterals, each with their own distinct personalities. 

Those of you completely unfamiliar with Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone may think it crazy to describe a group of squares and rectangles as "distinctive," but I have yet to find a more fitting descriptor. From the start, the music, the aesthetics, and especially the narration build one of the most enjoyable platformers I've ever played. 

While Thomas Was Alone is certainly capable of standing on its design and gameplay alone, it's the personality and Douglas Adams like cheek added by narrator Danny Wallace that sends this title skyward. The third person narrative is amusing and heart warming, giving the players a stronger connection to these colored blocks. 

Similarly, the music by David Housden provides a lovely backdrop to the black landscape and flickering backgrounds. Equal parts ambient and inspiring, the melodic swells and relaxed beat drove me forward and made the game feel more like a place I wanted to stay for a while.

The puzzles in Thomas Was Alone are inventive and clever. Many have more than one solution, and in the two hours I spent playing I never found myself stuck. The solutions present themselves very intuitively; it's getting there that presents the real challenge. I found myself stacking characters in some areas to reach otherwise inaccessible ledges or buttons.

Along the way, the minimal environments do a wonderful job of calling your focus to the characters, the only colorful things in the game. Being the center of attention brings out a lot in the characters, though mostly imagined. The fact that the characters shapes convey their personality so definitively still baffles me. Every bit of the game is directly focused on these little blocks, so much so that grown quite attached to them.  

I'm truly captivated by Thomas Was Alone. I want more, and I'm sad that the game isn't longer. My gluttonous appetite for colorful quadrilaterals is strong. I don't think the game is too short, two hours is just right for this little story. But just as we don't want to let go of things we love, I'm disappointed that my boxy friends and I don't have more adventures ahead of us. 

My Daughter and Proteus

Tuesday, June 4, 2013
My children are naturally curious about games. They see my wife and I play various games from console to PC game, major studios to indie developers titles. For the most part they are happy to watch us, as though we are preforming some kind of show for them.

Recently, our daughters have taken more of an interest in playing games. Our oldest is 7 years old, and is able to comprehend some of the basics of problem solving and puzzle based gameplay. She has had a lot of fun playing The Maw and Botanicula. Our youngest daughter has been more of a challenge. At 4 years old, it's easy for her to get frustrated with most games out there. 

Games on our 360 are out, her hands are too small. She's had some success with Flower on the PS3, but the later levels are a bit too difficult for even her older sister. I've been looking for something that she could play without worrying about it becoming too difficult or encountering content she isn't ready for yet.  

After purchasing the Humble Bundle 8 last night, I was immediately captivated by Proteus. It's beautiful, simple graphics and open island world left me stunned. Walking around the island, watching the days pass and seasons change, I realized that I'd found the perfect game for my little one. 

Some have called Proteus a "nongame" and discounted it as tedious or pointless. I wholeheartedly disagree with this perspective. Proteus isn't a game about "winning" at all, but it is a game nonetheless. As Ed Key, one of the developers behind Proteus said in response to an article on Gamasutra; "Proteus doesn't have or even aspire to the same systemic complexity as SimCity, but it does have systems. It's just 95 percent optional whether you engage with them and it generally doesn't give you any confirmation when you do. There's a design reason for this."

Anxious to see if little Miriam would enjoy romping around this imaginary world, I set her up in front of our laptop with a pair of headphones. I started the game and she eagerly clicked on the island to begin her adventure. Within seconds, she looked at me and asked "Daddy, why is it not starting?" After trying to explain loading screens to her, I settled on telling her the game was waking up.

For about half an hour, she wandered the island. She chased flocks of birds, climbed mountains and ran into trees. Then she wandered to the beach and back into the ocean. Coaxing her back onto the island was useless. She spent the rest of her session moving further into the ocean. The island disappeared from view. Then it was time for dinner.

My first thought was that Proteus wasn't the game for her; but the more I thought about it the more I realized that I was looking at this whole thing the wrong way. Proteus is not a game that you can play incorrectly. The entire premise is simply, "explore." My daughter did exactly that, and there's no way I can fault her for it. 

I already felt that Proteus was an intriguing game, but it was Miriam that showed me what is really special about it. Proteus offers us a chance to step outside of our usual roles as super soldiers, saviors, conquerors, heroes. We can explore the world before us however we see fit. be it sitting on a mountaintop watching the stars or moving miles and miles out into the ocean.

You can pick up Proteus on Steam, or you can pick it up as part of the Humble Bundle. I sincerely recommend the latter, as you;ll get a ton of other great games as well as help donate to Childs Play