Jordan Magnuson's picture

A couple of weeks ago I brought my Gametrekking project to completion with the release of a downloadable collection of all the travel-inspired sketches I’ve created to date. I thought I’d go ahead and copy my retrospective blog post over here. 

What about my writing? Will I start reviewing games again, now that the Gametrekking project is over? I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, here’s my retrospective:

Today I am releasing the Gametrekking Omnibus, a downloadable collection of all of my Gametrekking creations to date. It is my tenth release of the Gametrekking project, and it will also be my final "official" release.

Gametrekking Omnibus splash screen

The omnibus includes an interface that lets you browse through all of my creations by country, some built-in slideshows to provide context, links to my written reflections, and new fullscreen versions of all my games and notgames.

To download the Gametrekking Omnibus For Windows:

  • Download and run the native exe installer. Note that you need to be connected to the internet during installation, and it may take a while if you do not already have Adobe Air installed.

To download the Gametrekking Omnibus For Mac OS:

  1. Download and install Adobe Air from http://get.adobe.com/air.
  2. Download and run the Gametrekking Omnibus air file.

Gametrekking Omnibus screenshot

This is going to be the final official release of the Gametrekking project, because it’s been two years since the project launched, I’ve clearly finished "the journey proper," and a downloadable collection of the work I’ve managed to produce so far seems like as good a place to wrap things up as any. I say this is the "official" end of Gametrekking, because I see the project continuing on indefinitely in some sense… It seems certain that I will keep traveling into the future in some capacity or another, and that I will continue to experiment with interactive sketches and notgames about the things that impact me. But still, I think the Kickstarter project deserves some kind of closure, and that’s what I’ve tried to create with this downloadable collection.

When I launched this project two years ago on Kickstarter I didn’t know if I was going to be able to successfully fund it, but was soon amazed by the support and generosity of the family members, friends, internet acquaintances, and complete strangers who pledged their support, and made this thing a reality.

Once the project was funded, I still didn’t know if it was going to be a success or not—or even how to judge it as such. All I had was a backpack, a half-formed itinerary of shoestring travel through a few countries in Asia, and a vague plan to make interactive sketches about the things that impacted me along the way—to try and use experimental computer games as a kind of "travel writing," whatever that would mean.

The journey turned out to be incredibly challenging—but also incredibly rewarding. I struggled to fulfill my naïve promise of making computer games from the road while attempting to balance the day-to-day requirements of independent travel (where I seldom knew where I would be spending the night from one day to the next, much less whether I would have access to the internet), but the experiences I had along the way, and the people I met, more than made up for the difficulties. Hitching a ride with some fishermen on Taiwan’s east coast; seeing the Killing Fields of Cambodia with my own eyes; discussing the merits of Facebook with a college student in the Mekong Delta… these are experiences that I would not trade for anything.

Hitchhiking in Taiwan

Hitchhiking on Taiwan’s East Coast.

But still I am left with the question, as the project draws to a close, of whether Gametrekking was a "success." On a personal level I can look back and see that my life has been irreversibly enriched by my travels and my coding; I tried to capture some of the ways in my travel writing. Which is fine and well, but I don’t want to conflate the project with the journey (however hard it is to separate the two in my mind): the journey was personal, but the project was funded, and of a corporate nature. The question is complicated by the fact that I never defined what "success" for Gametrekking would look like, as such. Partly this was, perhaps, an oversight, but partly it was the nature of the beast: the entire venture has always existed as a kind of "leap of faith," both for myself, and for my backers—a project of possibility, of seeing what would come of a crazy, uncertain idea.

Does one consider success quantitatively, or qualitatively? When I think in terms of quantity, I cannot help but be disappointed: I wish I had a hundred creations to show for my efforts, rather than ten small offerings. I think of all the failed prototypes, and consider mounting them for display, to create a bigger catalog: I wanted to make something for every country that I traveled through, after all, and if I published my failed experiments, I could get there, and then some. But I cannot do it, because I cannot see this thing as an attempt to make a flash game for every country in Asia, like some kind of bizarre interactive Lonely Planet collection. Rather, the games have always been about expressing something personal, for me, even though they are merely sketches and doodles. And so I struggle more than I should with each one, and throw too many prototypes away, and come back too often empty-handed.

Prototype screenshot

An early prototype for "The Great Moped Balancing Act", one of many creations I never published.

Still, I can try and point to other numbers in an attempt at vindication: I can say that my Gametrekking creations, while few, have together been played nearly half a million times, that they have appeared on the front page of Newgrounds, been featured in Wired and EGMi, been used for psychology research…

But such claims ring hollow. If the goal of Gametrekking were big numbers, then making sketchy notgames about the kindness of strangers, or visiting your grandmother’s tomb, becomes a laughable waste of time.

Slightly more to the point, perhaps, is the "why" behind the figures: the fact that Newgrounds creator Tom Fulp found two of my sketches interesting enough to feature on his front page despite the fact that they are light-years away from the fare his audience is typically expecting, to expose them to something different. Or the fact that the folks at Extra Credits considered my small notgame "Loneliness" worthy of spearheading two episodes of their show, as a glimpse of something interactive creations should strive for. Or the fact that Patrick Klepek wrote up "The Killer" for Giant Bomb, because he found it a breath of fresh air in a world of "power fantasy" video games. This kind of qualitative assessment is a measure of success that I am vaguely interested in.

But we’re largely still in the land of vainglory. I enjoy a little spotlight as much as the next person, but I hope it’s not why I do what I do, and as such, I’m not willing to accept it as a measure of success.

What’s left?

Just the regular people who play my games, and the notes I get from them. A lot of these are negative. A lot of them tell me to go do something hateful to myself, because I’ve wasted somebody’s time. But every once in a while I get a message like this one regarding "Freedom Bridge":

I just registered on this forum to tell you that this was one of the most intense interactive experiences I’ve ever had. I went on and watched some short documentaries about Korea afterwards in order to process the tension it had left me with.

Or this one in response to "The Killer":

I have seldom experienced such raw emotion from a video game. I have traveled to a few of the places featured in your games and learnt a small proportion of their history in the process. however, after playing each game I had to research more and more and more. Thank you for making such simplistic and emotionally provoking games!

Or this one, about "Grandmother":

Unforgettable. Simple and stunning. Kinda reminds you not to forget about the one’s you’ve lost.

Or this one, posted on the Newgrounds page for "The Heart Attack":

Something I’d like to say… Jordan, your ‘notgames’ have done something. They hack and slash at the curtains we put up to shield ourselves from the ugly truth. That in reality, evil is decided by the individual. Among other messages. This, and your other games have a simple brutality, depressing and dark. But it’s also deeply informative and touching. They’ve given true insight on the human range of emotions, I’d say. I know that these short notgames you create bring out the best in my character. Make me sad, make me happy and many times, severely upset. I know I’ve learned from you, as many others could say they have. So please, keep on trekking. I want to learn more.

Or this one, about "Loneliness":

Thank you for that gaming experience… I had to get an account JUST so I can thank you for it… somewhere when the dots were slowing down, I said to myself, "I don’t want to go near them… I don’t want them to leave too" and I honestly Cried. I have never had to set the metaphysical controller down, and take in that level of emotion. I then realized that the game was called "Loneliness", and I started to reach back into my own memories of not being able to fit in at school, and then I realized that I needed to try ONE least time. The same thing happened in Life, and I am currently married to the only Girl that wouldn’t reject me, in the end of all that loneliness. I, again, thank you for that wonderful experience. Thank you… SO MUCH for this moment of self-reflection.

Or this one on, "Status Quo’s" Newgrounds page:

Taiwan… That is my home…!! Thank you for making such a project about our precious little island. I really appreciate it.^^

Or this one, in response to "The Kindness of Strangers":

Wonderful story, it’s almost surreal. Being born and raised in the more impoverish parts of the states, the only thing I’ve ever known from people is deception, greed, and hatred.

I don’t post these here for a whoop-dee-doo congratulations, or a pat on the back. I post them to share with you honestly why I consider the Gametrekking project to have been a success. I post them for those of you who backed my project, and wanted it to come to something.

Ultimately, regardless of how many games I make, I have to ask myself why I’m making them; if there’s not a good reason, I don’t care if I’ve made ten or a hundred. I find the numbers, whether of games, or of plays, to be abstract and meaningless in and of themselves. Likewise, the front-page mentions and five minutes of fame quickly fade. It’s comments like the ones above that keep me going. At the end of the day I don’t care about the ratio of negative comments to positive ones: only that the positive ones exist. In my mind, if my Gametrekking creations got one person to look up the conflict between North and South Korea, got one person to remember their grandmother, got one person to believe that Taiwan’s a real place, or got one person to reflect on the nature of isolation, then the project was a success. So I have to consider it a success. I can’t force my definition on anyone else, but I do hope that my backers will agree with me.

It’s been a wonderful journey, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

-Jordan

Why are we playing computer games, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the interactive artist isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the programmer-creator renew our hope for the interactive medium? Why are we playing computer games if not in hope that the creator will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

(Adapted from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

Exploring Emotion and Aesthetics with A Boy and His Blob and Lucidity screenshot
Jordan Magnuson's picture

A Boy and His Blob

Game released: 2009

Text written: Apr 27, 2010
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: WayForward Technologies

Production: Commercial

Platforms: Wii

Price: $30.00

Get it from: Amazon

Lucidity

Game released: 2009

Text written: Apr 27, 2010
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: LucasArts Workshop

Production: Commercial

Platforms: Windows

Price: $10.00

Get it from: Steam

Most of the games that I’ve ever played—and I’d venture to say most of the games we’ve ever created—are lacking in emotional depth. Many people have made this observation, and it’s coming to border on cliché. You probably don’t want to hear it any more. But if we want to make better games we’ve got to try and address these clichéd complaints that keep hitting us in the face, rather than just point out how clichéd they are. Over the last couple of months I’ve played two games that have impressed me with their emotional landscapes, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect on them. One of the games I think is great, and both, I believe, are important, for what they try to be and do.

The Games in Question

The games in question are A Boy and His Blob, by WayForward Technologies, and Lucidity, by the LucasArts Workshop. Each game offers some variation on puzzle-based, platformesque gameplay, and each presents a luscious, hand-painted graphical style, central to its charm. Just take a look at these screenshots: Read more »

Civilization: The Good Kind of Addicted screenshot

Sid Meier's Civilization IV

Game released: 2005

Text written: Feb 16, 2010
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Firaxis

Production: Commercial

Platforms: Mac OS X, Windows

Price: $20.00

Get it from: Direct2Drive
Jordan Magnuson's picture

Civilization is one of those games that has been hallowed nearly time out of mind. Sid Meier was, after all, the second person in history to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ Hall of Fame. So do I really need to write an article on the series? I don’t know, but I want to. I want to write about Civilization, because I recently played the latest iterations of the game after many years away1 and was struck by the formula’s greatness yet again. I played a lot of Civ II back in the day; enough to know, like anyone else who’s ever touched a Civ game, that the things are seriously addictive. But back when I used to play Civ II I didn’t really give that fact much thought (at least not as much as my parents may have): I just knew that I liked the game, and kept coming back to it. This time around, as “one more turn” syndrome hit me once again with the force of a ton of morphine, it made me think. About games, about addiction, about what’s worth doing in life. Read more »

Modern Warfare 2: It's Just a Game screenshot

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Game released: 2009

Text written: Jan 31, 2010
By: Chris Tompkins

Developer: Infinity Ward

Production: Commercial

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Windows, XBox 360

Price: $60.00

Get it from: Amazon
Chris Tompkins's picture

Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2 has stirred drama in the gaming community and media alike with a scene which presents the player with a choice to slaughter hundreds of innocent civilians while undercover in a Russian false-flag terrorist group. The scene is a powerful reminder of what gaming can do, and what it should do, as it grows into more mature shoes.

Let’s pretend you have invited me over to your house to, say, participate in a heated competition of table tennis. And let’s say, in the heat of a losing streak I yelled out a threat against your life. You’d probably laugh it off as an idle threat and make the next serve. However, if I continued to follow up that threat with an intricate description of how I was going to kill you, describing morbid details, where I would hide the body and how I’d get away with it, you might begin to find it less funny. If I started including your family in such descriptions, meticulously explaining how I would kill them all one night in their sleep, drag their bodies into a rented pickup truck, then drive it to the woods and burn the bodies with the lighter fluid in my garage then dissolve the remains with lime, you might nervously smirk and start thinking about asking me to leave your house. Even further, if I began to sketch out elaborate plans about killing you, planning the best possible routes to invade your home without being detected, and describing with what weapons and in what manner I would kill you, you might begin to actually fear for your life. If I showed anyone these plans the authorities would probably be notified, and most likely, I’d be arrested for what looked like planning a murder.

Where in that story did that stop being fun and start becoming a criminal activity? Was it when I first threatened you? No, it would be when I had gone beyond an idle threat and began defining the details of its execution. Creating an increasingly believable narration of a murder would probably begin to make you believe that I might actually do it. However, if I had done all this under the guise of being a writer, published the book, and started a controversy fit for Fox news—most likely no one would be arrested. Thus we have an interesting conundrum. Detailing the plot of gruesome and/or criminal activity in private is a crime, where as publishing these detailed arrangements to the public could be, if properly contextualized, art.  Read more »

Exit Fate: Why jRPGs Suck and Why You Should Play Them screenshot

Exit Fate

Game released: 2009

Text written: Jan 18, 2010
By: Yan Zhang

Developer: SCF

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Developer's Website
Yan Zhang's picture

Daniel, the protagonist of Exit Fate, is a soft-spoken orphan who fights only so that peace would eventually soothe the troubled land. He is separated from his army during a night raid, eventually finding himself at the head of a new army while searching for clues about his cursed fate and how to exit it. He meets over seventy heroes of all shapes and colors such as Meiko, a girl-scout with a mighty pen and a mightier right foot who you can assign to interview the other characters for more backstory, or Klaus, the last of a noble line of talking cats who deigns you worthy of his time after you provide him a room furnished as those of your best generals. You can freely select your adventuring party from among these heroes, although besides fighting, some heroes will help run your magic shop, smith your weapons, or even change your color settings. Occasionally, there will be a wargame-style square-grid mission involving the entire army’s special abilities.

Right, it is just Suikoden II; or as critics would say, any other Japanese RPG. Aren’t those all the same? Read more »

Calamity Anna's Shootin' Starcade: Six Glorious Trainwrecks screenshot

Calamity Anna's Shootin' Starcade

Game released: 2009

Text written: Dec 22, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Anna Anthropy

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Developer's Website
Jordan Magnuson's picture

I’d like to share with you today a few games that were made in two hours each. You read that right. Two Hours each. But why on earth would I do such a thing? Can a game that’s made in two hours possibly be worth playing, much less writing about and encouraging others to play? My short answer is of course yes, and the reason is this: some games can only be made in two hours.

What do I mean? I mean that some games, if they are to be good games, require weeks, or months, or years of effort and dedication to produce (granted, I haven’t actually played many games that have taken years to produce that I would actually consider very good, but you know, it’s a theory: we can perhaps imagine an inspiring triple-A title). Other games require not to have that time, because there is nothing for them to do with it. I’ve used the novel/haiku/sentence analogy before, and I’ll use it again: some games are analogous to novels in their scope and their ambition, while other games are more akin to short poems, sentences, or even singular words. We need these shorter games, just as we need the longer ones because, as Ian Bogost expressed two years ago in an article he wrote for Gamasutra, we need games of every shape and every form, expressing every kind of thing. Read more »

X-COM: Two Games, One Soul screenshot

X-COM: UFO Defense

Game released: 1994

Text written: Nov 22, 2009
By: Yan Zhang

Developer: MicroProse

Production: Commercial

Platforms: DOS, Windows

Price: $5.00

Get it from: Steam
Yan Zhang's picture

Two legends created by human history have had such unifying vision that any negative review would endanger the reviewer. One is Tupac Shakur; the other is X-COM. For my longevity, Tupac can wait for now while I attempt to explain X-COM’s place in so many “top games” lists, a fact that suggests the game as necessary.

The mostly1fabricated obligatory overview

In the distantly past future of 1999, the Earth is invaded by Aliens. Thus, the E-COM, the Extraterrestrial COMbat Unit, forms as the first common human interest since the microwave. The title soon changes to X-COM because it sounds cooler, but the group’s original purpose holds steadfast: by building bases, intercepting alien aircraft, and researching anti-alien technology, X-COM aims to contain the alien threat and eventually bring the fight back to the enemy.   Read more »

Destructivator: Ramblings screenshot

Destructivator

Game released: 2009

Text written: Nov 2, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Pug Fugly Games

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

Get it from: Developer's Website
Jordan Magnuson's picture

I recently found myself sitting in the Frankfurt airport, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for a miniature plane to take me to Slovenia to visit my parents-in-law. My one-year teaching contract in Korea has expired, and my wife and I have a two-week break before next year’s contract kicks in, ergo the trip. I’m typing this from the comfort of my parents-in-law’s home in Ljubljana, having already been here a week, relaxing and taking in the sites, but my story takes place in the Frankfurt airport… twiddling thumbs. So I’m sitting there feeling very sorry for myself—being six-foot-seven, and all, and already having had to endure eleven hours of economy class torture—mind wandering, cold blue lights slowly sucking the life from my bones.

With no direct imperative from my mind, my hand slips into my backpack and finds my laptop; out it comes. Zip zip, open click, the hum of fans, the Windows chime. I am reminded of another mind-numbing airport wait from several months ago—one that felt like death, in my state of depression at the time—and suddenly I know what I must do: the same thing I did then: Destructivate.

Alt-Space for Launchy, and I type the title in; nothing; the launcher must be acting up. Start menu then; searching.

But the place where Destructivator should be is blank, is not there at all. I remember a hard drive formatting… of course. And suddenly I’m almost depressed again, because I realize that Destructivator is not simply the game I played last time I was numb, waiting at a gate. Rather, it is the game that I must play at every airport gate, always. Like the airport, the world of Destructivator is cold blue steel; humanity’s ability to control the elements, inverted; modernism at its peak, above its peak, below its peak; Kurtz; despair. Read more »

Full Throttle: Saved by its Faults? screenshot

Full Throttle

Game released: 1995

Text written: Oct 15, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: LucasArts

Production: Commercial

Platforms: DOS, Mac OS 9, ScummVM, Windows

Price: Out of print

Get it from: Amazon
Jordan Magnuson's picture

I only review games that I have either just played, or replayed, as I want to make sure that they’re fresh in my head. Looking over the games I’ve played and completed in the last few weeks, the one that won’t leave me alone is, perhaps surprisingly, Full Throttle, which I recently played through with my wife. I considered reviewing the more predictable Blueberry Garden (winner of this year’s Seumas McNally at the Independent Games Festival), but with Beacon and Seiklus still so fresh on the front page, I felt like going in a different direction. I like variety, and it’s my goal with this site to review all manner of games, commercial and independent, old and new. Full Throttle beckons me because it’s different from the stuff I’ve been reviewing of late,[1] because it’s not a game that typically receives critical attention, and because it’s full of memorable characters and settings, which continue to meander through my mind.

The question, though, is how to approach a game like Full Throttle: a game so grounded in an established genre that it makes little, if any, attempt to explore new gameplay ideas? What to do with a game that relies on established mechanics so completely that it seems to seek to legitimize itself entirely through aesthetic, character development, and plot? Some might dismiss such a game out of hand as irrelevant: games haven’t done a whole lot for us in the past twenty years, right? So anything good must come from innovation, pushing the boundaries, doing something different, and new. We’ve played adventure games, and that mode can only be so successful at conveying story, at expressing mood or emotion, at highlighting the unique brilliance of the interactive medium. Case closed.

Or is it? What happens if we forget all that? If we come at a game like Full Throttle with new eyes, intent to take away everything that the game has to offer? Let’s approach this thing from the bottom up. Read more »

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