Articles

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 »

Beacon: Better Than an Art Game screenshot

Beacon

Game released: 2009

Text written: Sep 28, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Chevy Ray Johnston

Production: Independent

Platforms: Windows

Price: FREE

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

Can one person make a game that is qualitatively better than many triple-A titles? How about if that person has forty-eight hours to do it in? How about if we force them to make this game around a certain theme, and we don’t give them that theme until just before they start work? And for good measure, let’s say they can’t use a single premade resource: no bringing in code, or graphics, or sounds of any kind. Sound impossible already?

Many of you may know about LD, and you see where I’m going with this. For the rest of you, there’s a game creation contest out there that has all the restrictions I’ve cited above. It’s called Ludum Dare, and it takes place every three to four months, with the last iteration (#15) having happened a few weeks ago. For Ludum Dare 15 the theme was “caverns,” and one man, Chevy Ray Johnston, won the contest with a game called Beacon, a game so nice it makes me giddy to play. Read more »

Photopia: Not a Mediocre Short Story screenshot

Photopia

Game released: 1998

Text written: Sep 22, 2009
By: Jordan Magnuson

Developer: Adam Cadre

Production: Independent

Platforms: Glulx, Z-Machine

Price: FREE

Get it from: IFDB
Jordan Magnuson's picture

If you have not played Photopia, you should play it now. You should play it because it is a beautiful work, but if that’s not enough to encourage you, you should play it because it is a very important game, and it is very short. Really, if you’re not interested in taking an hour out of your day to play one of the most significant pieces of interactive fiction of the last twenty years, then you probably won’t be interested in what I have to say anyway. All games should be experienced before they are analyzed, but some games absolutely need to be, or they cannot be analyzed at all. Photopia is one such game.

If you have not played interactive fiction before, or if you have tried and given up, then this is a perfect chance to bite the bullet and finish a piece of IF. Because Photopia is not only short, but also very easy to play. If you shy away from IF because you don’t have the patience to read, then Photopia is made for you in its brevity; if you like to read, but shy away from IF because you don’t have the patience to learn a confusing syntax and interface, then Photopia is made for you in its simplicity and linearity. “Talk to” everyone you can, use “who am I?” and if you don’t know what else to do, try “wait”-ing a few times, or just keep walking north. I promise you, you’ll finish the game in no time. Just try not to rush through it so fast that you don’t enjoy those moments that should make you say “ah.” Read more »

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