I’ve been feeling tremendously nostalgic for ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness’ lately. For those of you who aren’t exactly familiar with this, back in the mid-80s when TMNT was an obscure black-and-white comic and not an all-conquering cartoon/merchandising juggernaut, indie game publisher Palladium Books bought the rights to do an RPG of the property for a relative song, just in time to catch the wave of popularity the Turtles generated. The late, legendary, lamented Erick Wujcik, who is perhaps best known for his diceless RPG based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, worked out an interesting freeform character generation system that allowed players to generate any number of unique variations on the “mutant animal” motif that also fit into the Palladium Megaverse rules.
Now, Palladium Books doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation among gamers. It tends toward power gamers, with an entire setting that is invested in superweapons, superpowers and superarmor that all do damage on an entirely different scale from ordinary people and an emphasis on buffing your characters through a time-intensive and complex character generation process. The lengthy, detailed character generation created a sort of “have” and “have-not” split between people who knew the rules well and were interested in number-crunching and those who either didn’t know or didn’t try to get the most out of the complexities of the rules. As a result, without a GM who could keep tight discipline or a party willing to keep to the spirit of the game, Palladium has a rep as a system that tends to attract munchkins and repel the number-averse.
That’s arguably a fair assessment (although I’ve never yet seen a system a munchkin can’t abuse through dickery and I’ve never seen one a fun gaming group can’t homebrew and rule-kludge into a serviceable game). But I didn’t really buy Palladium’s games to play them. I bought them to make characters.
Because when I was growing up, it was right around the same time that role-playing games were growing as an industry. I was a kid right around the time Gary Gygax decided to push his hobby game into the mainstream (the “Dungeons and Dragons” cartoon remains a fond childhood memory), and as a comic book fan it seemed like it was simply understood that I would become a gamer sooner or later. How could I not? TSR advertised relentlessly every month in every Marvel and every DC comic, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels were the next step after children’s fantasy for a young reader, and unlike many people, my parents put absolutely no stock in the Satanic panic fad. I was steered into tabletop gaming as inevitably as geeks today are steered into video games. (And I was steered into those, too, but that’s another story.)
But the thing about tabletop gaming was, it was ultimately a social hobby. It was something you played with other kids, and I spent my entire summer every year, as well as all my weekends in the spring and fall, transplanted six hours north of all my friends to work at my dad’s summer business in an area where there were maybe a dozen kids my age and their predominant interest was drinking. This made it hard to have a social life at home, not just because I missed the actual time socializing when school was out but because when I did return, most of the social networks were pretty much solidified without me. I played a few times in junior high and high school, but to me, gaming books were something that I read for pleasure. I didn’t play them, I used them to make characters whose stories were elaborate and filled with potential.
As a result, I never got that much into AD&D. I read the fiction, but 2nd Edition (which was around for most of my childhood and well into my adulthood) was all about creating characters quickly and getting into the game fast. You rolled your stats, you picked your race and class, you applied a few skills and bonuses, and there you were, ready to dungeon crawl. Which was fine if that’s what you wanted, but without realizing it consciously, I’d discovered that games can have purposes beyond simply being played. They can be creative outlets in their own right, ways to tell stories to yourself without needing another person. They can be a lifeline, if you’re short on friends but have all the dice and paper your heart desires.
So I gravitated to Palladium, with Heroes Unlimited as my gateway drug. They had dozens of settings, all of which were compatible with each other with only a minimum of work. You could make cyborg ninjas and alien superheroes and telekinetic knights from the future and oh yeah, they also had dwarves and elves and all that stuff too if that was your speed. You could make robots with your very own R&D budget, you could make elephants the size of mice with super-advanced future brains to make up for the size difference, you could spend hours paging through the details of character generation and learning all sorts of arcane secrets to make your character more powerful, more interesting, more real. All that and someday, there was the promise of playing those characters in a game, too!
I eventually did get into a gaming group in college. I don’t think I played a single one of those characters in it–we rarely even played a Palladium game, although we had a few memorable one-shot campaigns in between our lengthy AD&D sessions. (It was easier to teach people.) Eventually I couldn’t justify the expense of buying so many sourcebooks for games I almost never played, and my Palladium collection dwindled to give over shelf space for other things. But I will always have a soft spot for any Palladium product, a pang of nostalgia for Rifts and Beyond the Supernatural and S.D.C. and M.D.C. and taking Acrobatics and Gymnastics to increase my character’s P.P. and figuring out how best to spend my BIO-E and eagerly flipping through each new sourcebook to see what new animals they added. It makes me probably far happier than it has a right to, and I think it always will.
I never played much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.
Yes, I know, this has been done before, most notably by John Scalzi. But I think that he muddied the issue slightly by referring to Straight White Male as “The Lowest Difficulty Setting”, because a) there really aren’t any difficulty settings in MMO games, and yes there are people pedantic enough to care about that, but b) it’s not about how hard things are for you when you have privilege. It’s about the way people react to you. So let’s talk again about white male privilege through the lens of ‘World of Warcraft’.
So let’s imagine that ‘World of Warcraft’ had been released exactly as it is now, but with a key difference–you don’t get to select your character’s race. It is determined for you, and you don’t get to reroll. Now, the game designers are going to be concerned with balance the same way they are in the actual game (probably much, much moreso for purposes of this conversation) so they make sure that all of the races have abilities of equal utility and no race is more powerful than the others. They are all equivalent, if not actually equal. They want a diverse game where being of a different race doesn’t make you want to stop playing.
But, and here’s where we’re walking away from Mr. Scalzi’s analogy a bit, they also want to accurately depict a world at war. The Horde/Alliance conflict is a big part of the mythology of the franchise, and (as with a lot of the fantasy universes out there) particular races are associated with particular franchises. They want this near-mirror version of WoW to reflect that. So NPCs react differently to different races. Many shopkeepers, for example, give better prices to dwarves than to tauren for the same goods because they’re sympathetic to the Alliance. Some mobs are set to be aggressive towards high elves on their own but not when blood elves are around because they consider this to be Horde territory, and they’re willing to attack anyone they think is pro-Alliance. Some gear is only available to certain races, because the NPC who gives that quest won’t give it to “filthy goblins”. All in the name of verisimilitude, basically.
And this is where they make their big mistake, as developers. They don’t balance that. They balance the races, they balance the classes, they balance playability…but they don’t balance the computer-controlled characters and their reactions to the players. So if you rolled an Orc, you find that shopkeepers charge exorbitant amounts for even the weakest items, and they pay out a pittance for the stuff you sell back. Going through certain commonly-traveled areas is extremely dangerous because the mobs that ignore high elves have a one-in-four chance of brutally murdering you if nobody’s around to . Many quests aren’t offered to your species. Can you still level up? Yes, but it’s a hell of a slog.
And so you complain to someone who rolled an elf that they have it easy. That they have a privilege you don’t, and that it makes the game unfair. The elf replies that it’s simply not true–they had to fight for every coin and experience point they earned, that they paid for their gear fair and square just like you paid for yours. They might not even realize that they get a better deal at the shops until you show them a screenshot; even then, they’ll probably say that the idiosyncracies of the game designers aren’t their fault. They may even doubt your claims that the mobs in a particular region are aggro–they’ve never been attacked, after all. They’ve never even seen anyone attacked. If you’re having a hard time, they say, maybe you should learn to play better.
And that’s privilege. It’s not a single big thing–it’s a number of tiny cumulative things. The big disparity in wealth and power came about one gold piece, one quest, one mob at a time. But it’s not a difference in effort, either; one person is being rewarded slightly more for the same amount of work. This isn’t to say that any one person is to blame for their privilege, though. They didn’t code the shopkeeper, they didn’t code the mobs, they may not even have been aware of the fact that the game played differently for them than it did for other people until they were confronted with evidence. But the key thing about having privilege is that you need to acknowledge it. Because otherwise, you’re going to walk around convinced you’re better at the game than everyone else because you’re working on the fundamentally false assumption that it’s fair.
FLAPJACKS: Let’s make a survival horror video game!
MGK: I’ll bring the random assortment of dentist’s tools!
FLAPJACKS: I’ll bring the creepy doll’s heads!
MGK: Don’t forget to smash ninety percent of the light bulbs! But only ninety percent!
FLAPJACKS: Scary killers/monsters have to see too! It’s only polite!
MGK: Speaking of which, what type of scary killers or monsters do we want?
FLAPJACKS: Well, there are so many options. There are regular people who are grossly facially mutilated. There are body-dysmorphic horrors. And then there are body-dysmorphic horrors who are also grossly facially mutilated.
MGK: It is a smorgasbord of terror!
FLAPJACKS: The important thing is to make people go “ew” when they play our game!
MGK: Speaking of which, what type of protagonist should we have? I think we should have a protagonist whose family have died and who is still haunted by their deaths.
FLAPJACKS: Well I think we should have a protagonist whose family have disappeared and who is driven to find them, no matter how tragic an outcome may result!
MGK: Can we compromise and have a nameless non-entity who is defined only by his abilities which have been mapped onto the keyboard?
FLAPJACKS: My word, it’s like I’m surviving the game myself now! But we’re agreed it’s a dude, right?
MGK: Well of course.
FLAPJACKS: All those little convenient notes people leave behind will have so much more impact if I know my video-game self is a dude.
MGK: It’s only real survival horror if all the notes are in fact voice recordings. You know, as people do. Nobody writes things down any more! It’s the digital age! We talk into our talk-boxes! Voice diaries are a real important thing!
FLAPJACKS: Also with the voice diaries I think we need to give our hero supplies. That way he can fight the monsters. But only briefly, lest he be given some sense of agency! I think we should only give him single, individual bullets. People leave single, individual bullets around all the time! Think how scary it will be when he has only three bullets in his gun – and there are four monsters!
MGK: Bullets? Pffft, you’re not being ambitious enough. He should not have a gun. He should have a knife, which regularly gets dull when he stabs a monster with it, and he needs to find whetstones to sharpen the knife!
FLAPJACKS: He can carry up to four rocks at any time, and whenever he smashes a monster with a rock, it crumbles. He must constantly find additional rocks!
MGK: He doesn’t have a weapon at all, he just has a flashlight!
FLAPJACKS: And he needs to find batteries for the flashlight! Or else he won’t even be able to see!
MGK: What if we don’t give him anything at all?
FLAPJACKS: What if he needs to constantly find vitamins just to not die? Oh wait, I got it, our hero is diabetic and needs to take insulin every so often! He will have to search everywhere for insulin!
MGK: Which will be located in numerous desks, of course. It’s all coming together!
FLAPJACKS: But who will the big villain be? I think we should have it be a crazed scientist. He can make the awful murder monsters from people! All scientists know how to do that.
MGK: I would prefer a demon or maybe an evil ghost. That way the awful murder monsters don’t have to even conform to the slightest hint of scientific logic.
FLAPJACKS: I dunno. I think we want some degree of veracity to make players feel like this could really happen somehow. Otherwise we might as well be playing Mario Kart.
MGK: How about… it is the ghost of an evil scientist who was possessed by demons?
FLAPJACKS: Oooooh, that has some oomph to it.
MGK: Indeed! Who would not want to play this game?
FLAPJACKS: … actually I think I just want to play Mario Kart instead.
MGK: Yeah, me too. Let’s play that.
I’ve been struck recently by how the “Gamergate” schmucks – and make no mistake, you are schmucks – seem determined to use absolutely irrelevant arguments to try and advance their stupid, frivolous cause.
(And it is a stupid, frivolous cause. Game reviews do not merit a “-gate,” because they have been fundamentally crap for decades – it is open knowledge that better than ninety percent of them are bought-and-sold marketing pap, they are mostly pointless recitations of the game’s technical specifications anyway, and if a reviewer tries to get substantive, gamer nerds will start with the death threats because they didn’t give a perfect score to the game they wanted to be perfect. So anybody saying that this is the hill they have to die on is an idiot. But I digress.)
I am reminded, frankly, of what happened with conservatives who decided that Darren Wilson had to be defended when he shot Michael Brown to death, and how they began harping on whether Brown had shoplifted just prior – which was irrelevant, because the police admitted the shopkeeper had not reported the theft and Wilson had no idea about it. Then they harped on how Michael Brown’s autopsy showed he had marijuana in his system – which was irrelevant because so what, you can have pot in your system for weeks after smoking it, and more to the point pot doesn’t turn you into a savage monster who needs to be shot to death last time I checked. Then they started complaining about how all those black people were rioting, which A) was mostly not true and B) didn’t have anything to do with Michael Brown because he was dead and therefore could not riot so much. Right now they’re harping about releasing his juvenile record, which is not relevant because who gives a shit about his juvenile record.
The point of all of these irrelevancies is to try and cast blame for other incidents to muddy the waters, to try and make Michael Brown look like he deserved to be shot, when in context there was really no cause for him to be shot. (The context in this case of course being the multiple eyewitnesses who didn’t know each other and who all gave basically the same story – of Wilson executing Brown – within hours of Brown’s death, but conservatives decided that they didn’t count because, well, all the eyewitnesses were black and you know how black people are.)
Which brings me to Zoe Quinn and Lamergate. Gamergate. Whatever.
It is not relevant if Zoe Quinn and Eron Gjoni had a bad relationship (which, clearly, they did) to the issue of “was it right for Gjoni to post private message logs on Tumblr.” Because it’s not: it’s simply gross, shaming behaviour. If Gjoni wanted to rant about his ex, he could have anonymized the details and nobody would have said that was inappropriate. (Self-pitying wank, maybe, but not inappropriate.)
(To the jackasses on John’s post claiming that Quinn was gaslighting Gjoni: jesus christ do you even realize that gaslighting is a power/control mechanism and breaking up with someone repeatedly – as happened with Quinn and Gjoni, by Gjoni’s own admission – kind of invalidates the entire point of gaslighting, which is to seclude and isolate the target. I know you read somewhere that gaslighting was bad but yeesh read past the first sentence sometime.)
It is not relevant if Quinn cheated on Gjoni to the issue of “is it appropriate for some anon 4chan loser to post nude pictures of Quinn.” It is not relevant if Quinn slept with a Kotaku reviewer to the issue of “is it appropriate for Quinn to receive death threats.” Frankly, it isn’t even relevant if Quinn slept with a Kotaku reviewer to the issue of “did Quinn get a good review because of sex” because Quinn isn’t the reviewer and the moral onus for writing an unbiased article falls on the journalist, not the subject – never mind that there is precisely zero evidence whatsoever that said Kotaku reviewer ever influenced any writing at Kotaku about Quinn’s work.
It is not relevant if Quinn is an awful human being (I don’t know and I don’t care, although I expect she is like most twentysomethings: generally well-meaning, but confused and self-interested) because Quinn’s private life simply does not impact, in any way, the pathetic sad lives of the 4chan assholes who have harassed her.
(And yes, I don’t believe 4chan either, because why the hell would you believe anything emanating from a community which, inherent in its site design, encourages irresponsibility for one’s words and actions through anonymity? I mean, let’s go back to Michael Brown for a second: have we all forgotten that 4chan encouraged the Darren Wilson fundraiser for laughs? It’s a poison place filled with poison people; it makes Reddit look like a circumspect garden party by comparison, and that is indeed the very point of the site, to allow people to wallow in this sort of thing anonymously with no consequences. Why would you ever trust their word?)
In short: I have not seen one complaint about Quinn that is relevant to the issue of the horrible things that have been visited upon her. I have seen whining and piteous, pathetic wank, most of it either obfuscating the basic truth that this is about looking for excuses to attack Zoe Quinn for her gender, or alternately proclaiming that “this is bigger than Zoe Quinn” because some have at least enough insight to realize that maybe the wildly sexist assault is counterproductive, but they don’t want to apologize really so they jump straight to “we need to move on and address the REAL issues.” As if death threats were some kind of amusing sidenote.
And if you take offense with that – hey, go over to Davis Aurini’s Youtube page and start commenting there. I’m sure he can swirl his glass of whisky and cluck his tongue in such a way as to make you feel at home.
Recently, Disney/Lucasfilm made some fairly big news by announcing that they would be de facto decanonizing the Star Wars Expanded Universe. They’re doing it in a nice way, of course, by rebranding it as Star Wars Legends and continuing to make material for the fans who still love it and taking it to a farm where it will be much happier, but the long and short of it is that the stories a generation of Star Wars fans have accepted as the continuation of the universe…isn’t, anymore. And while a part of me is actually happy about this, on the grounds that it frees us from a lot of straitjackets (for one thing, I’ve always felt like people took Yoda at his word that there was no redemption once you started down the path of the Dark Side, when the conclusion to the trilogy was all about him being manifestly and self-evidently wrong), I think it’s worth trying to understand why people adored the Expanded Universe. And for that, I think it’s worth talking about West End Games.
Because when West End Games picked up the Star Wars license in 1987, the property was pretty much dead. The corpse was still twitching here and there, but it had been four years since the last movie and there was no sign from Lucas that he ever intended to film the promised prequels or the promised third trilogy (or the fourth trilogy that fans had heard rumors of based on third-hand rememberings of old magazine interviews…it was a pre-Internet era). There was no TV show, no cartoons or specials to perpetuate things, and the Marvel comic had just been canceled. Even the action figures were off the market. This was, pretty much, the nadir of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon. Which first meant that West End could afford the license, but second and more importantly meant that they were the only game in town…figuratively, as well as literally.
And they did exactly what a game company does. They systematized and organized the fictional universe. Star Wars went from being three movies and a handful of ancillary material, all of which revolved around the adventures of a few specific people as they battled a few specific antagonists, to being a complete fictional environment that you could immerse yourself into for a few hours at a time. Things that Lucas had glossed over were given depth, weight and texture in order to satisfy people who wanted to play that weird looking thing in the back of the Mos Eisley Cantina. Vague mystical powers were given rules and rationales. And most importantly of all, you could enter that universe yourself. You could join in. It held a tremendously powerful allure for the Star Wars fanbase that was still out there and that wasn’t being served anywhere else.
It’s little wonder that the Star Wars novels felt like a natural outgrowth of the West End material, to the point where planets and technology first referenced in WEG sourcebooks became significant in the series. Likewise, given how starved for material they were, it’s no surprise that the WEG sourcebooks synergistically fed off that new material in the 1990s and detailed it for their games. The West End Star Wars was an incubator, a crucible where new ideas and new material could be tested and refined for an audience of devoted fans before it went mainstream again. And the fans who were around during that time, who were the most loyal of all because they cared about it when nobody did, all identified with that material strongest of all because it was theirs in a way no other form of Star Wars could be. I might not be a huge fan of the EU, but I can certainly understand that.
Plus, it was just a fun game. Any game where you get to roll more dice as you become more powerful has a certain cachet that mere “+X modifiers” can’t match. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of rolling a double-handful of six-siders and realizing you’re absurdly bad-ass in a clear, tangible way. West End Games helped Star Wars fandom get through the hardest time, and Star Wars still bears the stamp of its influence. And despite it all, I feel like that’s a good thing.
Plague Inc. You ever get frustrated with a game because it’s got a great idea and then simply doesn’t go deep enough with it? Plague Inc. is one of those games. Take the old Pandemic II skeleton, put more options into it, really have fun with it. And in some ways Plague Inc does that because they put in a lot of new game modes – Neurax Worm and Necroa Virus are both interesting, fun ideas for a plague game to tinker with. But the problem with this game is that in most of the modes, there is exactly one way to realistically win: lurk in the background for a long time with as little visibility as possible until the entire world is infected, and then turn on fatal symptoms immediately. In short, the only way to win the disease game is to make sure your game doesn’t play anything like diseases actually do. And that’s kind of boring.
The latest episode of Game of Thrones. Depending on which showrunner you’re interviewing this week, you’ll get a different answer about whether Jaime raped Cersei or whether she was into it. (HINT: the first one is the one who’s right. You are entitled to slap anybody across the face for advancing the “she was into it” argument.) But of all the changes the show has made from the books, this one is by far the worst so far. I vaguely suspect it was done to humanize Cersei because Cersei is so awful that in order for anybody to feel sympathetic towards her something really awful has to happen, but here’s the problem: nobody needs to feel sympathetic towards Cersei. She is a villain, and that’s fine, and her villainy actually comes from a perfectly reasonable place (her anger at her relative lack of power as a woman, even as a noble). Choosing to have her be raped is a cheap plot point, and although Game of Thrones is usually a well-written show I don’t think it has the narrative room by half to dwell on the ramifications of the sexual assault in a way that would make it worth including in the narrative. (For the record, Sons of Anarchy did it very well in the second season and should probably be considered the model for “if you must do a sexual assault storyline, this is how.”) Just a terrible idea on so many levels.
The end of Superior Spider-Man. Maybe “sucked” is too strong here because this was not a bad comic especially – but after a superhero comic run as refreshing and solidly entertaining as Superior was, it definitely limped to the finish. Otto’s heroic sacrifice was a wet fart of an ending for his character arc, the most blatant “we’re doing a retcon of this entire storyline because we have to, okay” that I’ve seen in some time. Ditto Peter’s return, which was just… bad, a deus ex machina without the machina bit, expressly rewriting what had gone before in the comic – and you have to figure it’s because the movie’s coming out in a month and we need the status quo back for the movie. Slott is still writing good stuff here, overall, and the last issue is reasonably entertaining and it’s nice to see Peter in the costume again, but that doesn’t really change the fact that a remarkably good comic dropped to “basically acceptable” right at the end.
I was sitting at Snakes and Lagers a couple of days ago playing a game of Revolution! – which, it turns out, is not very good at all: it has a serious runaway leader problem in that, if you “win” a round of bidding in the right way, you are more likely to “win” the next round. (And I say this as the person who won the game handily.)
Afterwards, the general agreement around the table was that the game was not very fun, but one player explained that this was all right, because he would rather play five or six games in a night rather than one long one. This is a fairly common sentiment among boardgamers, especially as we get older what with the babies and the adult responsibilities and all: if you’re going to have a game night, better to spend it playing a variety of things rather than one big long thing.
I don’t really agree. This is not to say that I don’t like short games; there are plenty of short games that I really like, and over the last year or two in particular mini-game design has really gone to a new level with games like One Night Werewolf and Mascarade and Coup and Love Letter and Council of Verona and… well, I could go on at length. There are lots of fun short games out there.
But short games are like appetizers. They are a wonderful little prelude (or an after, if you prefer the metaphor to be a cheese plate or something, bear with me). But if all you play is short games, then you are effectively doing the gaming equivalent of a tapas restaurant. And tapas restaurants are all terrible.
Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of Bruxelle 1893. It’s a remarkable design as Euros go – a tense combination of bidding and worker placement and area control and point accumulation all at once, with a lot of interaction and a lot of variable strategy. It also takes about 30 minutes per player and plays best with four, so as a game it tops out at two to two and a half hours, which puts it at the upper end of what most gamers are willing to play on a regular basis.
But here’s the thing: that play length is what allows for individual plays of the game to have their own narrative, which I find to be more and more important to me as time goes on. I don’t just want to interact with people, I want to create my own story through the game. That story doesn’t have to be exclusively driven by the game’s internal narrative, mind you – that’s a reason a lot of people like “Ameritrash” games, and while it’s fun for me to make Warhammer references when I’m playing Chaos In The Old World, the narratives I enjoy more are “I dominate the entire game and then have to fend off a three-person alliance in the last turn” or “I do my best to come from behind but fall just short.” Those narratives are universal, which is why they can come from Euros or Ameritrash games or abstracts or what have you. That’s what I love about board games.
It’s one of the reasons I own every expansion for Battlestar Galactica, a game that almost always takes longer than three hours; it’s why I own six different 18XX games, the quickest of which starts at three hours as well; it’s why I make a point to play Virgin Queen twice a year even though a full game of it takes anywhere from eight to ten hours. (Almost invariably after those games I sit down and have a beer with people who were playing other things and we just swap game stories.) You get out what you put in.
Bruges. I usually hate Stefan Feld games because they are all recipes for getting victory points (he also put out Bora Bora this year, and that is a game where literally every single action, even passing, gives you points) and little else; they mostly seem like cynical exercises to stroke the addictions of Euro-gamers rather than actual attempts to craft a pleasing game. (If Stefan Feld made pizza, every pizza would have triple cheese and double pepperoni and ham and seven other toppings and it would be completely inedible.) But Bruges, despite being a Feld and therefore having a lot of ways to generate points, feels like a proper game to me – partially this is because of the crazy amount of card interactions within the game, partially it’s because actual effort was put into the design to make everything click just right. It’s true that there isn’t as much hand manipulation as I would like – basically you have to make the best of what you draw, most times, and a good engine in this game involves drawing as much as possible rather than hand-cycling – but that also makes the game simpler and quicker, and that’s not nothing.
Spyrium. William Attia’s long-awaited follow-up to Caylus hits many of the same buttons that that earlier game does for me; it’s a rock-solid worker-placement with a lot of ways to screw over other players, but they’re all still worker actions. Worker placement, at its best, is an elegant game mechanic that forces players to gamble, adapt on the fly and even bluff, and Spyrium gives you all of that while also forcing each player to carefully manage their inflows of money so they can buy further assets. It’s a remarkably tight design but its random board allocations also allow for a great deal of play variability and replayability. It’s just good, at absolutely everything.
Nothing Personal. It was advertised as a streamlining and modernization of Kremlin, the classic Avalon Hill area-control-as-negotiation game, and that is exactly what it delivers but it’s really such an improvement in so many ways. It’s chaotic but with enough control that it never feels random, thematic as all get out (this is a mobster game, and the mobsters CAN whack each other, but it’s much harder to whack Da Capo than it is to whack a low-level goomba – also the start player token is a pinky ring), and the negotiation of the game often comes down to who can offer the best bribe, which is exactly how a mobster game should play. (The box says “three to five,” but never play this with three since the bribing/negotiation portion of the game is essentially meaningless with three players.)
Eight-Minute Empire. Realistically this game takes fifteen minutes to play rather than eight – you can only finish a game in eight minutes if everybody really tears through their turns – but it’s still a fast and surprisingly deep little continent-controlling game that actually does feel a little bit like Risk, if Risk were good rather than tedious. So much game in such a little box!
Mascarade. Two smallbox bluffing games came out this year that were very good – this and Coup. The latter is fine, but I think it suffers a little from a deterministic end game – as you gradually eliminate character roles by eliminating players, Coup‘s endgame becomes a little of a fait accompli since it becomes much easier to figure out what your optimal play is. Mascarade doesn’t have this problem; it’s a bluffing game where it is entirely possible to not know your own power, let alone everybody else’s, and it requires a fair amount of mental dexterity to juggle your bluffs with other players’ knowledge. It’s a deftly designed little game with nice components (although I wish the art had been prettier; it’s very busy).
Next five: Planet Steam, Euphoria, The Duke, The Great Heartland Hauling Company, Guildhall.
Papers, Please. Everybody likes to talk about how big-budget AAA titles force us into difficult moral decisions, but realistically they almost never do. You do the bad thing to get to the next cutscene, that’s it, and your only real choice is to stop playing (I remember when people were saying that Spec Ops: The Line was so upsetting that it became unplayable past a certain point, like this was some sort of feature), and that’s not necessarily a problem with big-budget gaming per se but it’s definitely something that sort of game doesn’t do well. Papers, Please does this very well, because the choices you make are entirely your own and do not impact your advancement in the game: you can grow increasingly corrupt and keep your family alive, or stay human and watch them gradually starve/freeze/die of illness, or you can try to float between the two (I adopted “let my elderly uncle die off to keep my wife and child alive” as a strategy) but whatever you choose, you can continue to advance through the game stages and grasp at the faint straws of hope it provides. It’s remarkably elegant in simulating the demands of a tyranny upon you, the average Joe Citizen.
Monaco. The single-player version of this heist game is a fun puzzle-solver with myriad ways to solve each level (since all of the eight characters have their own special powers which let you waltz through some of the various challenges faster, but have to be normal at everything else), but it’s the multiplayer that really shines because it turns heist into farce so fast. At first I was trying to be all Thomas Crown on multiplayer levels, but watching everybody else just go hogwild and alerting the cops turned it into this weird slapstick farce of a thing which was ridiculously fun. I bought Payday 2 a while back when it was on sale. Haven’t played it once, because Monaco is just so good.
Rogue Legacy. This was my roguelike obsession of the year, a semi-rogue platform game with permanent leveling as you send descendant after descendant into the castle of death to kill the monsters. I am 4000 years into this family’s history and haven’t finished it yet, but I’m optimistic it should only take me another 1500 years’ worth or so of dead heirs. Great controls, great leveling design, great monsters, great everything. Until that Binding of Isaac sequel comes out this is my jam.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Brave New World. Okay technically this is just an expansion to a game from 2010 (good lord I have been playing Civ V for three years, what the hell) but BNW completes Civ V on so many levels so I am cheating a bit and listing it here: it makes diplomacy exceptionally more important (meaning all those wars you launch suddenly matter a lot more), changes the cultural victory condition to something much less twinkish but still achievable if you dedicate yourself to it (and the tourism mechanic’s benefits to trade are both thematic and an interesting motivator to pursue the victory condition), makes the trade mechanic both more powerful and more vulnerable simultaneously (sacking enemy trade routes and protecting your own becomes an actual thing), makes Great People much more useful, and revamps social policy for the better. It refines the “peaceful builder” aspect of Civ V while also making it more challenging, and nothing impresses me so much as when games, years after their initial release, continue to innovate and change. Sadly, this is probably the last expansion before Civ VI.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. A bargain-level FPS turns out to be my favorite shooter of the year? Well, it was. More critical types have applauded how the game’s use of an unreliable narrator makes it more fun and clever – which it does – but more importantly than that, it grounds the immense amount of action you undergo as you shoot the bejesus out of seemingly every last cowboy in the Wild West, whether they were good guys or bad guys. And the shooting is excellent, and the level design is rock solid. Really, Gunslinger serves as a reminder that designing a top-notch first person shooter is not really all that hard, which is why so many failures in this regard are so depressing.
Next five: Don’t Starve, Spelunky HD, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Ironclad Tactics, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. (That last would probably have made it on the list if I hadn’t started playing it only on December 30/had finished it already.)
I was chatting with David Uzumeri on Twitter recently about Bioshock on account of we were both playing the new DLC campaign for Bioshock Infinite, and I said I wished that all of the Bioshock games were, in fact, stealth games like Thief or even Dishonored (which is sort of a stealth-action first-person shooter). This is partially because I really like stealth games, but it’s also because stealth games, more than other games, require you to interact with the world around you: you have to really involve yourself with the environment, every table, fence and building becomes something you have to intimately know – this nook is safe to hide in, that cranny isn’t.
(It also means that good stealth games can immerse you into the world’s wider story in a way that feels far more organic than what Bioshock does with its “oh look the big bad of the game just happened to leave a diary recording of his nefarious plan here on this fruit stand” mechanic. Dishonored was particularly good about this: documents that you could sneak into rooms and read were always relevant to where you were and often didn’t have anything to do with your personal plotline while still being interesting.)
But why I particularly wish the Bioshock games were stealth games ties into the reason why I find most zombie games boring as sin. Stealth games make so much more sense when you are traveling through a world undergoing armageddon because during the end of a world, the tall grass gets mowed down. Why wouldn’t you want to sneak through a world where people with superpowers are trying to kill each other and also you? And this is of course why there are no truly great zombie video games that really capture the fearful aspect of zombies: they’re all action games like Left 4 Dead (which I really like, don’t get me wrong) or comedy-violence games like Dead Rising or Dead Island (which I really don’t like at all).
A zombie game that would be primarily about stealth would really make the problem with zombies plain: there’s more of them than there are of you, and they never get tired and they never stop coming, so the trick is to make sure they’re not coming for you. That game doesn’t exist yet and doesn’t appear to be coming. Instead, right now, the big thing is “build a base and defend it” zombie games, which also kind of miss the point: bases, in zombie stories, exist to be overrun. They’re honey traps for humans, that’s the point of bases.
(Day Z kind of got stealth gaming in zombie games right, but it’s also not fun because it’s an MMO and first off there’s all the PVP, which is just frustrating – and sandbox play doesn’t really work for a stealth game because at some point you have to get to your safe point, your stage end, and breathe out and relax. But War Z is at least a step in the right direction.)
Anyway, it’s just another of the many failures of Bioshock Infinite, which has to top my list of games that could have been so much more than they were but which I still play because what they are isn’t terrible by any means.
Recently got email from someone asking me to promote Fae Nightmares, a new Savage Worlds-rules-using tabletop RPG Kickstarter project, and their reasoning was solid, so I have backed the Kickstarter and am writing about it here even though it is urban fantasy with faerie overtones and that is, to put it generously, not really my thing at all. (Although the Savage Worlds ruleset is generally excellent, so that’s a plus.) At this writing they’re only about $4K away from funding with twelve days to go.
The reason I’m backing this Kickstarter is because it’s actively advertising itself as gender-neutral and LGBT-friendly. That is, to put it bluntly, pretty goddamn ballsy in the RPG world – which is approximately as bad as the comics world when it comes to queer-friendliness and anti-sexism, and I know that sentence will start a lengthy debate about whether RPG fandom is as bad as comics fandom when it comes to sexism and homophobia, and the answer to that debate is “nobody wins.”
(Someone here is probably going to mention how White Wolf’s games always had gay characters and I don’t want to get into that debate either, but suffice it to say I have been subjected to more than one rant from a gay gamer friend about how White Wolf treats homosexuals as Pokemon. I do not feel equipped to judge that on the merits, but on the other hand it’s White Wolf, who managed to create one and a half truly great RPGs – Mage, and Ars Magica, which only counts for half because Chaosium started that and WW just took it over later on – and so, so, so much that was just awful, so whatever, somebody else can defend White Wolf.)
In short: these folks are banking on RPG fans being willing to pay hard cash for equality in-setting, and I think I have to support that. And given how many of you reading this are the sort to say that [INSERT VARIOUS NERD FANDOM HERE] should be more open and tolerant and non-assholic, I think you guys should too. It’s only $15 for the PDF, and that’s not bad at all as RPG e-books go.
Ironclad Tactics: It’s an interesting design, a mix of tactical combat and deckbuilding that isn’t like a lot of games on the market, but you can only release some cards by playing with friends and there’s no central server so I have to schedule games with my existing Steam friends, most of whom don’t own the game. This is the sort of game where a public lobby is basically necessary and there is not that thing. Maybe they will add one because it is still in development? I hope? Because that would make it a lot better.
Jamestown: I love shmups but I am terrible at shmups. Like, back when I was twelve we had a sit-down arcade cabinet version of 1943 in the coffee shop near school and I played that thing to death and I never stopped sucking at it. Twenty-five years later, absolutely nothing has changed. Jamestown is gorgeous and clearly very detailed in its gameplay, so far as I can tell from watching other people get much further in it on Youtube than I will ever get because I keep blowing up.
Alan Wake: hey look it’s a shitty story AND a shitty game, that’s an innovative twist
Guacamelee!: The visual design of the game is fun. The fighting is fun. The endless jumping puzzles are challenging and much less fun than the fighting, and there are a lot more jumping puzzles than there is fighting, which: I get that it is a platformer, but it is a platformer about a luchador fighting the King of the Dead, and the crucial “fight/jump” balance is off in the wrong direction entirely.
Deadlight: “What if the original 2D Prince of Persia was a zombie game?” “Then it would be okay.”
Spelunky HD: This is interesting in contrast to Jamestown and Guacamelee in that I traditionally excel at platformers but I am awful at Spelunky. Granted, it’s a combination platformer/roguelike, but I like roguelikes too and… man, I suck at this game so hard. It’s kind of embarrassing. Every time I die it’s from the stupidest goddamn thing. “Oh, you didn’t see the arrow shooter trap? Dead.” “Oh, yeah, spider death. Probably shoulda jumped on that all Mario style, but you screwed it up.” I glanced at the Spelunky wiki at one point to see what some item did and was shocked to see how deep the game goes and how far I was from playing it even half-competently.
King of Fighters XIII: I will not drop $80 on a USB arcade stick. I will not drop $80 on a USB arcade stick. I will not drop $80 on a USB arcade stick.
McPixel: The joy of games like Wario Ware is that usually you can intuitively figure out what you’re supposed to do in the brief time frame allotted to you. McPixel decides to instead make your objective deliberately obtuse. I am not sure why they did this exactly. Maybe they don’t want people to have fun playing their game? That would be bold level design, I suppose.
Sepulchre: The developer and author explain that they wanted to make a “true” horror game because all those other horror games rely on shock and that’s not real horror, real horror is the sense of creeping dread, like in this game where the shocking twist is like the least shocking twist ever when it comes to horror fiction and also the voice acting is kinda bad and, let’s be honest, “creeping dread” and “bad pixel art” do not exactly go hand in hand. On the other hand, it is free, so you get what you pay for almost.
Gunpoint: I got to the point where you pick your ending and I stopped because I can’t make up my mind. Other than that this is a great little game with lots of neat mechanics, good writing and decent retro graphics that are simple without being all HEY LOOK WE DID BLOCKY PIXELS because god, I am sick to death of pixel games being pixel games for the sake of being pixel games.
Ducktales Remastered: Loses a bit in the modern translation (the story cutscenes are just kind of annoying) and to be honest, there are plenty of platformers out there that learned all of Ducktales‘ tricks and improved upon them, which is to be expected from a game from the late 80s, isn’t it? I mean, yeah it’s great that this bit of gaming history got remade and all, but it’s like everybody acting excited that Nintendo remade an old Zelda game in HD: I am not sure why I am supposed to care that much.
Babel Rising: hee hee squish all the peoples squish them and zap them hee hee hee this is all I have ever wanted from a god game ever
Between the strange ape-skeleton monster, the complete lack of cooperation with spatial geography as we commonly understand it, and the inevitable death of your character, clearly Temple Run 2 is in fact secretly part of the Cthulhu mythos, and your intrepid adventurer is fleeing through the weird geography of an alternate dimension, completely unaware that they are no longer on Earth and that they can never return to it. Discuss amongst yourselves.
I’ve been watching Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and have generally enjoyed it. You know who doesn’t? A Mister, um, DanimalCart on the Kotaku forums. To be fair, his complaint is more eloquent than some of the crap Sarkeesian has dealt with, so I thought it was worth further examination:
I don’t agree with the majority of Sarkeesian’s work and many of the examples she brings up don’t strike me as overtly based in sexism. However I also don’t begrudge Sarkeesian for trying to point something out and she deserves respect just like any other human on the planet. I can even agree that some sexism does exit in gaming I am just trying not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
If it’s not clear which baby is being thrown out with the metaphorical bathwater, it will be shortly.
Sarkeesian typically shows evidence and uses examples that only go in service to support a thesis she has already made before researching a topic. She does not consider financial issues, publisher/developer relations and other factors that contribute to story/character decisions.
It seems to me that Sarkeesian’s approach boils down to 1) discuss a basic androcentric cliche and 2) cite a dozen or more instances where video games have utilized same. I’m not sure how much more research DanimalCart thinks she needs to do to justify her position, or how he knows she is cherry-picking data to support a predetermined conclusion.
As far as mitigating factors are concerned, I think she thoroughly addressed the way financial issues and publisher-developer relations affect the use of, say, damsels in distress as a plot device. Video game publishers have a financial issue in that they want to make money. Video game developers are obligated by their publishers to make games that will sell. Games about male characters rescuing helpless female characters are reliably easy to sell to male audiences. This is a motivation for sexism, not an excuse for it.
If you have played ICO, you will know that the character Yorda works with ICO as an equal to escape together throughout most of the game and she has mystical powers that ICO does not, is taller than ICO and more mature as ICO is a boy. Yorda even saves ICO’s life at the end of the game, and is no mere damsel. The game also features beautiful environments, great atmosphere and is a truly unique and beautiful experience. Sarkeesian reduced one of the greatest games of the PS2 into another example of sexism, which may be why some are so put off by these videos.
I’ve never even heard of Ico before this week, but nothing in this paragraph proves that Yorda is not a damsel in distress. From what I can find online, Yorda is helpless to escape her plight, in spite of mystical powers (or height I guess), without the help of a male character controlled by the player. It may be more complex than Mario saving the princess, but the male is still the subject and the female is still the object of his efforts. Acknowledging that is not tantamount to dismissing everything good about the game.
Frankly, I don’t sense that Sarkeesian is arguing that the games she criticizes are necessarily bad, or even that the tropes she discusses are inherently bad. Her main point is that the tropes are used excessively, with little thought given to what they say about the video game industry’s treatment of female characters. The Legend of Zelda can be an awesome game and a rather un-feminist game at the same time. There’s no harm in admitting that, unless maybe you think it’s awesome because it’s not feminist, which would be kind of weird.
Women don’t want to be portrayed poorly or reduced to sex objects and Men don’t want labeled as misogynist pigs. Sexism is bad, everyone can agree to that and no one wants to be accused of it or have it applied to them. When tensions start at such an elevated height, a certain level of tact is required when trying to talk about them on a larger forum. To gamers, Sarkeesian displays all the tact of an uninvited construction crew coming in your living room at 5:30 in the morning and Jackhammering.
Here’s where we get to the root of the backlash against Sarkeesian. Like I said, I enjoy Tropes vs. Women, but when I watch it I find myself becoming defensive. I know she’s going to challenge my preconceptions, and I don’t want her to suggest that behavior I take for granted is sexist. If I played more of the games she discusses, the show would probably make me uncomfortable, so I can see why gamers would liken her to an unwelcome interruption. DanimalCart’s fallacy, though, is to suppose that Sarkeesian ought to maximize his comfort while lecturing him about feminism, when he would be most comfortable if she didn’t lecture him at all. There is no fun way to be told “your favorite games aren’t very good at depicting women,” and she isn’t obligated to make it fun.
Notice that it’s DanimalCart’s living room and Sarkeesian is the uninvited pest, even though she clearly enjoys video games as much as he does. Because she’s questioning the sacred cow, whereas he’s reflexively guarding it. The gaming community, like any other fandom subculture, is devoted to the purity of a common interest (in this case video games) and tends to be pretty insular and jingoistic, especially if they feel bullied by outsiders. In this worldview, you’re either with gamer culture or you’re against it:
The gaming media is running a giant game of guilt by association. By running articles and putting a spot light on these nasty comments [by gamers against Sarkeesian], perceptually they were not outliers anymore; they were the voice of the community. How in a span of 20 years did the stigmata of gamers go from “nerds who live in their parents basements” go to “every white male gamer is a sexist, misogynist asshole”?
Simple: Twenty years ago people didn’t know what nerds in the basement were saying or thinking, but now you can go on the internet and see. The issue isn’t so much that gamers are all misogynists, though. It’s that, far too often, their response to stories about misogyny in gaming is to circle the wagons and defend gaming from external criticism, rather than address internal ugliness. Thus: Sarkeesian criticizes video games, gamer culture harasses Sarkeesian, gamer media critcizes gamer culture, therefore the problem is Sarkeesian and the media!
Look at how this very site trashed Katie Couric for her uneducated and research viewpoint on video games. Kotaku ran four articles about “Couric-Gate” calling her one episode “one-sided, fear-mongering”, encouraged gamers to tweet at her with challenging viewpoints and did a victory lap when she offered a mea culpa. Where is that for Sarkeesian’s work? Couric ran one 40 minute episode on gaming; Sarkeesian plans to run 13 parts each over 60 minutes in length making just as grandiose claims of the ramifications of gaming. Where is the analysis in the gaming media?
“Analysis” here may be read as “knee-jerk defense.” Whenever someone suggests the entire medium of video games is to blame for something–Joe Lieberman, Jack Thompson, Katie Couric–the community rises as one to protect gaming from the ignorance and fear of outsiders. It’s a comfortable position to take, hunkering down with one’s “countrymen” against some boogeyman in the name of an unimpeachable cause. It also reduces a fandom’s capacity for self-examination. Gamers who are uncomfortable facing Sarkeesian’s arguments choose instead to pretend they’re a persecuted minority, under attack from all sides and finally betrayed by their own news outlets. They want her to be the next Jack Thompson, because that simplifies the conflict.
So here’s where we get back to that “throw the baby out with the bathwater” business; in this rush to reduce the debate into absolutist terms, Sarkeesian’s critics end up accusing her of dealing in absolutes. She thinks games aren’t feminist because she doesn’t understand them! She identifies sexist tropes in games because she wants those games to be eradicated! Combating sexism is fine, but this nut thinks all gamers are sexist, and she wants to destroy all video games! Absolutely none of this comes across in Sarkeesian’s videos, but since she doesn’t go out of her way to deny it hard enough, gamers feel free to assume it’s true.
I do think DanimalCart is right that Sarkeesian would do better to take into account the extraordinarily thin skin of her audience. Nevertheless, the greater onus is on her audience to grow the hell up.