Month: April 2014

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From an Individual to the Universe: Talks With My Mom

by Jed Pressgrove

Sometimes art conceals understanding or best intentions. Talks With My Mom avoids this pitfall: without a hint of pretense, the game condenses one girl’s struggle of growing up gay in a traditional household. This honest gem, an entry in Gender Jam, shares and inspires as the protagonist speaks to her bigoted mother. As a storyteller, developer Vaida seems willing to talk to anyone — just one individual communicating to the universe.

A lot can be said about gender and sexuality with stick figures. This style is not an abstraction but rather allows us to fill in the gaps through the context of the dialogue. With its frank approach and sequencing, Talks With My Mom is reminiscent of hyperpersonal autobiographical comic books like Maus and American Splendor. Within the funny book frame, phrases like “It was a tiring day” work both as empathy devices and punchlines.

From a player’s perspective, some might criticize the lack of interactivity and options. But as anyone who has played a dreary Twine or an engaging Twine knows, clicking itself can be a grind or feel as fluid as a game with good combat mechanics. Talks With My Mom’s clicking is very agreeable, as you don’t have to click anything in particular to advance — click the mother, click the daughter, click dark space, click the text, whatever. With this freedom, the story’s rhythm and mood are yours to influence. It is entirely possible that the player’s clicking style can make the talks in the game more or less awkward or humorous (or perhaps clicking isn’t a style so much as a reflection of our own personal reactions). In any case, the game’s simple and flexible clicking could be more palatable for traditional gamers.

The protagonist’s strained relationship with her mother is presented with maturity to spare. Although the game pulls no punches in showing the mother’s anti-gay, anti-genderqueer, anti-trans, and anti-individual statements, Vaida illustrates her mother’s ignorance and badgering with care and humor, not hate (“We went shopping. Again. She’s very persistent.”). Talks With My Mom also shows how looking back can reveal new perspective. “I thought you were done with this eccentricity” hurts coming from any parent, but its utter naivety is laughable coming from a taller stick figure. Parenting can be a joke.

An implicit message of Talks With My Mom is looking back at moments, however painful, and reaping lessons from obvious and unlikely places. The complexity of the mother’s bigoted beliefs comes to a head when she offers a valid point of parental worry: “The majority of people will judge you.” The protagonist’s answer to this concern defines the game. Talks With My Mom stars a gay girl but has the potential to entertain or enlighten anyone. The game’s comments on family debate and individuality reach across all aisles — Vaida’s purpose is unquestionable, her young life on clear display.

Suicide Discussion as an Art Stunt

by Jed Pressgrove

Earlier this month developer Porpentine released a Twine called “Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” for a limited time only. This event was as much about Porpentine’s statement as anything:

This game will be available for 24 hours and then I am deleting it forever.

You can download it here until then.

What you do with it, whether you distribute, share, or cover it, is up to you.

Suicide is a social problem.

Suicide is a social failure.

This game will live through social means only.

This game will not be around forever because the people you fail will not be around forever.

They are never coming back.

This game’s title:

Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game’s title when you feel uncomfortable with the topic of suicide and would rather indefinitely forestall your inevitable confrontation with reality:

Anyways, this is dedicated to Sasha Menu Courey & all the others.

Suicide is indeed a major and complex social problem, as established by Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological work, “Suicide.” Porpentine’s game, now hosted at StoryCade (among others), does not address suicide as broadly as Durkheim, who identified several types of suicide and numerous related social facts. Porpentine focuses on a type of suicide caused by abuse and neglect. The developer’s reference of Sasha Menu Courey might seem disrespectful following a flippant “Anyways,” but Courey’s case is significant: Courey committed suicide in 2011 after the University of Missouri failed to respond to Courey’s report that she had been raped by one or more UM football players. I say without hesitation that it’s better to spend time learning about the broken system of UM, and what that says about American culture’s handling of rape and mental illness, than playing Porpentine’s game.

“Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” comes across as an art stunt. The game’s poetry, addition/subtraction, and suspense don’t promote broad understanding about a serious subject. Rather, these elements, along with the “for a limited time only” approach, appear to be designed to build the mystique of Porpentine as an unconventional artist. And like Porpentine’s accusatory tone, all of these things play with people’s emotions. By distributing, sharing, or covering, the audience becomes part of an art marketing campaign.

(Let’s place the criticism aside: from a purely emotional standpoint, I don’t find Porpentine’s approach edifying. In the last few years, two of my loved ones have committed suicide. I loved both of these people unconditionally, but I still interrogated myself: did I ever do anything, however small, to contribute to their suicide? Was there anything I could have done to let them know that I was there for them? Eventually, I realized I probably wasn’t the only person who has asked these questions. I decided it was best to honor the memories of my loved ones, to discuss with others how important they were as people, and to be mindful of how much my action or inaction might affect people. I imagine almost everyone, at some point, must come to terms with the suicide of a loved one.)

Porpentine’s statements and game don’t acknowledge the complexity of a universal problem. One can be intrigued, impressed, or simply shocked by the game’s limited release, imagery, abstract yet blunt style, and mature subject matter. But the world needs more articulate dialogue about suicide, not more artistic branding.

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Traitor Gives Meaning to Shootin’ ‘Em Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The second mission brief in Traitor says “You [the protagonist] don’t really care about the absurd complexities of politics.” With this phrase, developer Jonas Kyratzes sums up the appeal behind most, if not all, great shoot ’em ups — the cathartic simplicity of shooting away without responsibility or consequence, particularly when ammo is limitless (an ammo problem, typical in more “realistic” shooters, stalls catharsis). Kyratzes’ phrase can also apply to how game criticism operates: the innovation of Traitor, released two years ago, has largely been met with critical silence.

Traitor challenges the shoot ’em up tradition without completely overturning it. Through well-written text that I wish was the standard in video game scripts, the game weaves a conflict of interests between the protagonist and the standard shoot ’em up decree. The moral conflict either compels you to stop pressing the fire button or comments on the precious life that you choose to extinguish. This moment of the game is stunning in its originality. The hesitation it can inspire is unlike anything one normally experiences in the excitement of shoot ’em ups.

After this conflict, Traitor returns to the “shoot everything” roots of the shoot ’em up, though modernity is present in the upgrade and reputation systems. Traitor feels like a scrolling Space Invaders with RPG elements. The use of “HP” alone suggests the RPG connection; the exploration confirms it. Even the outstanding soundtrack by Chris Davis seems to have more in common with the majesty of 1990s Final Fantasy themes as opposed to the blood-pumping tracks from vertical shooter classics like Soldier Blade.

The shooting is about as simple as it gets, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the upgrading as far as challenge is concerned. After saving up credits, it’s possible to upgrade enough so that the missions are a breeze. Some later missions may catch you off-guard, but the most frustrating parts of the game are sections where enemies or obstacles block your way and your weapon isn’t upgraded enough to destroy them before the scrolling screen essentially kills you. I also wish the bosses were more challenging — even the final boss was a pushover, as it cannot travel the horizontal length of the screen.

Kyratzes’ storytelling overcomes these gameplay limitations for the most part. Each mission is preceded by concise dialogue (some of which is quite witty) from faceless characters who represent downtrodden and alienated peoples. This dialogue builds political purpose (at the risk of oversimplification: Marxists in space). Even buying upgrades can become more about helping others, in clear contrast to the upgrade screens in Fantasy Zone and Lords of Thunder. The story also goes beyond text. While Traitor’s visuals represent an old-school style, they create a distinct and mysterious galaxy. I often wondered about how a particular enemy design came into existence.

If it were a “AAA” release or heavily marketed indie title, Traitor would give big game critics (who fainted over Luftrausers) something to talk about. Traitor is another rebel unrecognized by the gaming empire, but a historical perspective suggests that it is an important shoot ’em up that can be improved. In its flaws and strengths, Traitor points toward the hope of greater games.

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Episode 3: The Wolf Among Us Stumbles

by Jed Pressgrove

No one could blame the latest Wolf Among Us episode if it were simply trashy, but I wouldn’t let my garbageman play this. The monotonous violence that essentially bookends this entry (“A Crooked Mile”) suggests that inspiration can be fleeting in Telltale’s rigid format. The decision to release adventures in five-episode shells clearly favors business over creativity. Only a few moments of hesitation and reflection keep Episode 3 from being straight-up filler.

Telltale thankfully hasn’t forgotten the hook of The Wolf Among Us — how the soul and duty of the Big Bad Wolf are intertwined. Even in this weak episode, the moral fiber of the game remains far more sophisticated than The Walking Dead’s sentimental and violent babysitting simulation. That a simple choice about respect for the dead is considered a major decision highlights a subtlety in The Wolf Among Us that most games don’t have (A Game of Cat and Mouse comes to mind as an exception). Moreover, the influence of Snow White on one’s actions is legitimately powerful, as pointed out by Alexa Ray Corriea.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us also seems to be interested in being a dumb action show, which doesn’t work given the increasing gravity of its story. The gunshots in this new episode have a Harrison Bergeron effect, dulling the game’s intellectual senses. Forget about the annoying button mashing: the violence demonstrates little more than the fact that we can liken the Big Bad Wolf to the indestructible X-Men character, Wolverine (as if the hair, attitude, and Jean Grey/Snow White similarity weren’t enough). The last big decision is simultaneously an unimaginative Berserker Rage reference and a holdover of The Walking Dead’s corny “Whoya gonna save/kill?” dynamic. This lame conclusion is punctuated by a new character who comes onto the scene like a Dragon Ball Z villain, full of boring, idiotic things to say. Yep, this isn’t trash; it’s more like litter.

The limited commentary on class struggle can’t overcome how dull the investigations are compared to those of the first two episodes. The single exception is the investigation of Auntie Greenleaf’s house. This scene, however, exploits political tensions as opposed to presenting the moral and legal concerns of the situation coherently.

The Wolf Among Us has become more sentimental and obvious with this glaring fragment of a game. Even without endings, the previous two episodes were unique, energizing stories. Episode 3 is Telltale playing that old television trick of fulfilling the obligation of a numbered episode. Asking ourselves why we crave another episode can tell us a lot about the last one we experienced.

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Mainichi: An Unsentimental RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

The title screen of Mainichi recalls the history of Japanese RPGs. Instantly sentimental music is a trick that almost every JRPG plays (even moodier ones like Chrono Cross). Once you move past Mainichi’s title screen, that decades-long thread is lost. Enter a world where JRPG music doesn’t exist.

Mainichi’s rejection of sentimental music is partly why Craig Stern wrote “Mainichi is not an RPG,” a statement that spends too much thought on what RPGs have been rather than on what they can be. Mainichi is a minimalist RPG and demonstrates how one can “role-play” outside of the sentimental model. The game’s sociological approach also contrasts with the sentimentality of many western RPGs — the promise of character creation mostly reflects a colorblind and genderless fantasy.

Developer Mattie Brice uses a Groundhog Day narrative structure to share her emotional struggle as a trans woman. The game’s purpose is no secret, but it does present a more passive attitude than either Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia or Devi Ever’s Grand Titons.  The hurtful messages you receive in Mainichi are influenced by that RPG standby: equipment. The importance of appearance in Mainichi makes even the faction politics of Fallout: New Vegas seem limited.

The player’s mission in Mainichi might become finding the path of least heartache. Walking down a sidewalk, for example, is more than a mundane everyday occurrence. Whereas the sidewalks of Will You Ever Return: In da Hood showcase an intermingling of fantasy and reality, the sidewalks of Mainichi smack only of uncomfortable realities about prejudice and relief. Nonplayable characters prompt you, not the other way around.

The coffee shop sequence is the most provocative part of the game. If you play Mainichi in a certain way, you can avoid discomfort and discouragement until it comes from an unexpected source. This “ending” fulfills Brice’s intensely personal message, less of a damning critique than a difficult heart-to-heart.

Last year critic Sidney Fussell asked “Can videogames teach us about race?” Mainichi, though more about gender, answered that question the year before it was asked. Brice could have made a longer, less repetitive, and more hopeful game (for that, Grand Titons is a better artistic creation), but at the very least, Mainichi provides a window into the social potential of video games.

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Luftrausers Sells Glitter, Not Substance

by Jed Pressgrove

One might wonder if some critics went easy on Luftrausers based on sympathy for developer Vlambeer and its cloned game, Radical Fishing. Luftrausers is a slick product that combines arcade/Atari shooting and scoring with mindless achievements disguised as missions. Simple yet not simple enough.

Everything about Luftrausers subdues player concerns about launching, saving, and dieing — old-school shooting without grit and urgency. The purpose of Luftrausers is to die trying and get rewarded for it. Is it fun killing five enemies in a continuous boost when the game tells you to? Should anyone feel proud to have destroyed a battleship during a “MAX” combo by intentionally dying to set off a nuke? No matter. You’re making steady progress, and here’s another upgrade for playing. The game is tedious not because of its difficulty but because of its modern, commanding banality.

The question isn’t whether Luftrausers is playable but whether it’s worth playing compared to its peers and ancestors. Luftrausers bastardizes rather than revives old-school shooting in contrast to less-marketed games like Titan Attacks, which combines arcade gameplay with modern upgrading in a more logical and skill-based fashion. Luftrausers’ control scheme apes Combat on the Atari 2600, a game that lacks glitter and single-player but whose neanderthal emphasis on face-to-face gaming blows away an online leaderboard for mediocrity. Hydorah, Asteroids, Vorpal, Tempest — good shooting has many names, and Luftrausers ain’t one of them.

Then there’s the imagery of Luftrausers that Game Informer called an “edgy, stylized faux-Nazi aesthetic.” Most critics don’t discuss this aesthetic, as pointed out by Nick Capozzoli. Indeed, it’s hard to care when the game itself doesn’t care. Vlambeer merely uses Nazi suggestions for style points. This approach should come as no surprise, as the developer once described Radical Fishing as “our simulation of the noble pastime that is traditional redneck fishing.” I sincerely question whether Vlambeer would know a real Nazi or redneck if it slapped them in the face.

There are far worse shooters than Luftrausers, and Vlambeer should be commended for its technical attention to detail. But all the hype over this game raises a question: has shooting fallen so far that the soulless missions of Luftrausers provide a new standard? As long we can remember why we have Space Invaders and Space Invaders Extreme, the answer is simple: No!

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Attack of the Nintendo Clones: Shipwreck and Blue Beacon

by Jed Pressgrove

Video game clones inspire intense debate and create political platforms for busybodies. A reasonable critic, however, plays the clones and specifies what makes them good or bad clones (only phonies decried Flappy Bird for “ripping off” Super Mario Bros. after a cursory glance at graphics). In the wake of numerous mobile and Flappy Bird clones, Shipwreck and Blue Beacon have arrived to PC and Xbox Live Indie Games as classic Nintendo clones.

Shipwreck, developed by Brushfire Games, is a Zelda clone whose female protagonist and autosave address modern gaming concerns. Some will point to Link’s Awakening as a significant influence, but that’s a bland thematic observation: Shipwreck is more of a riff on Zelda as a genre, which helps explain our reactions to its incomplete cloning.

While Indie Gamer Chick and The XBLIG criticize the lack of enemies and the lack of a map for Shipwreck’s overworld, I welcome the lack of sleepwalking through dumb enemies and marked objectives. Shipwreck operates more as a maze than a world. The game lacks personality (townspeople parrot each other like idiots) and exploration (don’t bother looking for secrets), but this design gives more attention to a strength: dungeons.

Unlike the overwhelming majority of A Link Between Worlds, the dungeons in Shipwreck feel dangerous. This danger can come from things that you might find unfair, such as taking damage when falling to a lower floor as part of a puzzle. Is that unfair because the design severely hampers the player, or is it unfair because the game deviates from what we’re used to in Zelda? Even the idea of a bat taking two hits with your sword acts as a line in the sand. Shipwreck might have the dullest denouement in recent memory, but its minimalist defiance toward Zelda makes it a worthwhile clone.

AdamTheOtaku’s Blue Beacon is a stranger game, partly because it’s a clone of the weird Super Mario Bros. and partly because it’s goofy anyway. Like Magicians & Looters, Blue Beacon makes death funny, providing comic relief from the slippery controls. As in Mario, you bust blocks that might contain diamonds (rather than coins) or power-ups that grant suits and powers (this time of the insect variety). Goomba- and Koopa-like enemies abound.

The catch is that using special powers puts you in danger. Charging as a beetle to kill an enemy sends you flying into the air. Fly too long as a butterfly and you’ll drop like an anvil, possibly to your death (no gliding as in Mario). You don’t feel empowered in Blue Beacon so much as careful that you don’t kill yourself.

With no continues, Blue Beacon can be a frustrating experience. Thankfully, the game is brief, with the ending evoking the domestic satisfaction of eliminating pests. Oddly enough, nothing in Mario felt as real.