Month: January 2015

What Is a Video Game Marketer?

by Jed Pressgrove

Discussions on “what is and isn’t a video game” and “formalism” continue their savage run. Some say we shouldn’t limit the definition of a video game. Others say we should focus on what makes video games different. But these statements miss the overwhelming influence of marketing on how we perceive reality.

No one woke up one morning and knew what a “video game” was. My first video game was Super Mario Bros. Why? Because my parents believed Nintendo was selling a video game, then they told me Super Mario Bros. was a video game, just like people tell kids today that Minecraft is a video game. Marketing tells us we should try things as different as Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, and Gone Home, and all of these things are placed, by marketers, under the umbrella of video games.

I might argue Gone Home is not as much of a game as Grand Theft Auto III. I might argue Grand Theft Auto III is not as much of a game as Pong. I might argue Gone Home fulfills the potential of video games. I will likely convince no one that I’m right because these arguments are pointless. The more likely result of these “arguments” is that I might inspire people to try Pong, Grand Theft Auto III, or Gone Home to see what the fuss is about. Instead of trumping marketing, these arguments help marketing and constrain critical thought.

We are all marketers to an extent. Twitter, which is a nonstop series of advertisements and billboards, confirms our interests as marketers, though our marketing is not limited to and does not require Twitter. As marketers, we confirm the suggestions of super marketers (the owners and distributors of products and platforms). We confirm Gone Home is about “narrative,” “story,” and “environmental design” (maybe even “social justice”). We confirm Grand Theft Auto III is about a “world,” “deep mechanics,” and “choice” (maybe even “freedom of speech”). We confirm Pong is an old piece of junk that no one plays anymore because it’s not hip.

This marketing also comes with dubious political suggestions that keep people fighting rather than thinking. You are “liberal” if you value Gone Home more than Grand Theft Auto III. You are “conservative” if you value Grand Theft Auto III more than Gone Home. In online video game discussions, party politics is more important than individual experience and perspective.

Only one phrase can accurately sum up these discussions and suggestions: distracting bullshit. We are always going to hear about the Grand Theft Autos and the Gone Homes because the big and little video game marketers tell us we should try them. In response, I think we should do one of three things: (1) critique the games for what they are, (2) ignore the games, or (3) shut up.

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Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

There is no critical value in hyping any conception of “video game,” traditional or otherwise. The following works simply accomplish their goals, modest or not, better than the numerous other 2014 games that I played.

Note: You can check out my 10 worst video games of 2014 here.

1. Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk’s emphasis on derailing plot, a cue from the Marx Brothers, turns video game campaigns and side missions into farce. (People who pontificate about “narrative” or “gameplay” might be too jaded to laugh, though.) Developer Necrophone Games’ dedication to irreverence outplays Obsidian Entertainment’s adolescent marketing and genre triteness in South Park: The Stick of Truth. Jazzpunk never gets haughty about the artificiality of games and takes joy in the absurd possibilities of the form.

(See full review of Jazzpunk here.)

2. Choice: Texas

Some say “every game is political” and others say “keep politics out of games,” but I often get the sense people are talking more about how game content either massages or insults their partisan egos. The life politics in Choice: Texas reject partisanship to explore practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns. Text-based second guessing conveys how policy, family, religion, school, and work can lead pregnant women to visit and revisit decisions that are as sociological as they are personal.

(See full review of Choice: Texas here.)

3. Talks With My Mom

Unlike Mountain, Talks With My Mom is a masterpiece of minimalism. The game’s focus on mother and daughter confronts the anxiety of raising children and growing up gay, trumping the lack of sociology and dignity in Gone Home’s horror cliches. Even if someone says “not a game” in regard to Talk With My Mom’s ultra-simplistic clicking (which allows the player to punctuate mood and control pacing), developer Vaida’s statement on identity and gender is undeniably mature, non-judgmental (the mother isn’t presented as a mere bigot), and clear.

(See full review of Talks With My Mom here.)

4. The Talos Principle

If it were only a collection of puzzles, The Talos Principle would be impressive and worthwhile. The puzzler further distinguishes itself by addressing the voice of God and the voice of reason. Avoiding propaganda, The Talos Principle magnifies the human vulnerability and intellectual conflict within the Garden of Eden story, an account that is usually analyzed from one-dimensional viewpoints. The smattering of philosophical texts might be tedious, yet this bombardment captures the challenges of thinking in the (Mis)Information Age. The game achieves the most clarity in connecting deity and human as players. The urge to solve puzzles, to be a creator of order, explains more than The Stanley Parable’s smug and obvious design lesson.

(See full review of The Talos Principle here.)

5. Beeswing

One can almost see the human hands that crafted the art and music in Beeswing, but the result still seems magical, particularly during the best video game song of 2014 that dares to express the alienation of the elderly in nursing homes. Beeswing’s checklist of activities represents what a person hopes to accomplish going back home rather than the common attempt in games to glorify content. Even among provocative work like Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History and Will You Ever Return? 2, this is Jack King-Spooner’s masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for Beeswing, but only at the level that allowed me to download the game. Moreover, I do not plan on backing another Kickstarter for a video game. The whole process annoys me.

6. Amazing Princess Sarah

Just ignore how developer Haruneko advertises this game as yet another breast-obsessed adventure on Xbox Live Indie Games. Not satisfied with retro sentimentality like Shovel Knight, Amazing Princess Sarah expands the strategic possibilities and challenges of Super Mario Bros. 2’s enemy throwing. This platformer also gives the “new game plus” concept memorable purpose, outdoing the beat-it-twice legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The rule changes in each version of Amazing Princess Sarah can make difficult sections easy and easy sections difficult, inspiring new appreciation of the game’s five levels.

(See full review of Amazing Princess Sarah here.)

7. Shutshimi

The direction of Shutshimi borders on the avant-garde. The alternating 10-second bursts of shooting and power-up selection defy conventions, especially when you’re forced to choose from power-ups that are almost certain to lead to your death. The narrative of a fish defending his home is punctuated by constant human bicep flexing that recalls the homoerotic overtones of Cho Aniki. Neon Deity Games has created the wildest shooter of our time: a high-score exhibition that celebrates and parodies masculinity.

8. Broken Age Act 1

Tim Schafer’s direction in Broken Age Act 1 is virtuosic. The two stories tie together brilliantly in terms of theme and plot. The voice acting blows away the amateurish efforts of countless bigger-budget games. Although some puzzles might require backtracking, Broken Age is designed to allow a much faster pace than most point-and-click adventures. Broken Age always seems one step ahead with its punchlines, inviting the player to goof off as much as advance.

9. Replay Racer

Mario Kart 8 might have helped make 2014 a banner year for Nintendo banality, but that latest entry of an overrated franchise can’t match the innovative fun and challenge of Replay Racer. Developer Chris Johnson turns every completed lap into a juggernaut that you have to avoid and outrace. By the sixth and final lap, you’re competing against five of your own Frankensteins. If arcades were still respected, Replay Racer would be a hit.

(See full review of Replay Racer here.)

10. Temporality/Snot City/The World The Children Made

Cheat Code: Allow Three Choices for One Spot. Down, Up, Down, Up, Enter.

These three games from James Earl Cox III weren’t released as a trio, but they stand out together in 2014. Temporality gives a more respectful and thoughtful tribute to what is lost in war than Ubisoft’s Looney Tunes/Pokemon treatment of World War I in Valiant Hearts. Snot City exposes formulaic item collection as juvenile horror. Finally, The World The Children Made is a timely adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, warning millennials and their offspring of the potential dehumanization of technological convenience and privilege.

The Sailor’s Dream — Hardly a Fantastic Voyage

by Jim Bevan

Swedish developer Simogo is one of the few studios that knows how to create stellar games for mobile devices. Simogo’s catalogue stands out not only because of highly refined touchscreen controls but also because of creative narrative and design. Bumpy Road was a unique take on platformers where players controlled the road to move a car forward while collecting photos that revealed the history of an elderly couple’s life together. Beat Sneak Bandit combined elements of puzzle, stealth, and rhythm games to create a surprisingly addictive experience. The heavily text-based Device 6, while being fairly sparse in its puzzles, kept me intrigued with its psychedelic mystery that felt inspired by Alice in Wonderland and The PrisonerHowever, originality is not the sole factor that determines a game’s overall quality, as evidenced by Simogo’s latest game The Sailor’s Dream, an inventive yet lackluster work.

The greatest, and perhaps only, strength of The Sailor’s Dream is its intriguing story. As a mysterious young girl dreams, her subconscious takes her to a vast, seemingly endless ocean, one she has longed to travel for years. She discovers several islands, each home to its own building. The memories found on the islands flesh out her past, specifically her sad solitude in an orphanage that she could only break free from during summers, when she would spend time with a kind woman in her cottage on the cliff. On occasion the girl and the woman were visited by a handsome sailor, implied to be the woman’s lover. The woman and sailor were the closest thing the girl had to a family.

The story fragments are scattered with no specific order required to collect them, so the story will be told out of sequence, much like a troubled memory. The player learns that the sailor failed to return from the sea one day, that the woman he loved vanished without a trace, and that the woman’s cottage was burned to the ground, the girl suspected of starting the fire. Without enough context to know when each event took place, the player can be led to some rather disturbing assumptions about what incident preceded the next. Even when additional information is gathered to paint a clearer picture, it’s still upsetting to learn about the tragic fates that befell all three major characters.

Like Simogo’s previous work Year Walk, there are two endings to The Sailor’s Dream, the second “true” ending only unlocked after completing optional tasks (which I’ll discuss later). Without going into too much detail, the conclusion is simple, melancholy, and fairly realistic in depicting the girl’s efforts to acknowledge how her past shaped her. It’s not a very happy ending, as the girl doesn’t find any closure to reduce the sorrow of the ghosts that she carries with her. I understand why the developers took this route: a saccharine, joyful ending would negate the game’s overall theme of how our life’s influences, good and bad, cannot simply be ignored.

Aside from finding notes, there’s nothing to do while exploring the islands. None of the items connected to a memory can be interacted with. The only objects that can be manipulated are glowing shapes and symbols that produce musical notes when moved. This design is quite disappointing considering that several of the objects are set up in ways that could have made for puzzle scenarios, like pulling five hanging paper cubes in a specific order or rearranging stars as a moon passes by. Even simple activities like finding an object that could only be used in another area — such as taking the rusted key from the Secret Lighthouse to a locked box or bringing a telescope to the highest point in the Celestial Sanctuary to look at the stars — would have added some tangible sensation that I was part of the dream rather than a mere spectator.

Clues to unlock the true ending are revealed in two notes. One note explains that the old sailor speaks into a radio at the top of each hour, hoping someone is listening and will respond to him. The other note mentions that the girl would sing into a bottle and toss it into the sea each day for a week. From these hints, players are supposed to deduce that they must visit the Transmission Horologe at the start of each hour (a.m. or p.m.) to hear all 12 sailor transmissions and collect a new bottle every day to complete the music box set at Seven Song Cottage. These quests aren’t pointless as they do provide more insight into events that happened before the start of the game. And in a way I can understand the delays in progression, which symbolize the frustration felt by the sailor and the women during the time they spent apart, waiting to be reunited yet never knowing how long it would take. But the execution ultimately detracts from the experience rather than enriching it.

Unnecessarily forcing players to wait until they can proceed is one of the greatest sins a mobile game can commit. Simogo doesn’t compound the problem with exploitative microtransactions, but that doesn’t make up for how taxing the game’s delays can be on the player’s patience. This real-time waiting system works in games like Animal Crossing, which offers other activities until the desired objective can be accessed again. In The Sailor’s Dream, the player can only travel back to previously visited islands to play with the musical objects, or quit the game and do something else until it’s time to return and unlock the new secret. Any game that encourages its audience to stop playing is clearly doing something wrong. These delays can be avoided by adjusting the iPhone/iPad’s internal clock and calendar, but this process quickly becomes a chore.

While I have no real intention of playing The Sailor’s Dream again, I can’t say it is awful. It’s very imaginative, presents an unfolding mystery that I found captivating, has incredibly touching songs, and manages to create great atmosphere. I just wish the game allowed the player to do more than moving from screen to screen looking for the next part of the story.  The Sailor’s Dream is definitely Simogo’s weakest game to date, but I won’t fault the studio for trying something new. Experimentation is crucial if art is to evolve, even though it doesn’t always result in success. Hopefully the developers will remember that a game’s world is most enthralling when players are allowed to be a part of it rather than being restricted to wandering around while a story is told.