Wednesday, October 31, 2012

From Horror, With Love

With 1.3 million copies sold, Amnesia: The Dark Descent ushered in a new genre for indie games: Horror. Soon, the market flooded with chilling features like Deep Sleep and Hide. But there's something eerily different between indie games and the mainstream titles we love.

Indie game developers have more leeway in terms of what they can and can't do in their games. This means more opinions, more vulgarity, and most importantly, more gore. Even pixelated games like They Bleed Pixels don't skip out on the guts. That's not to say that indie games are bloodier than mainstream games, but they can forgo a narrative and only leave a world of terror in the hands of the player.

In fact, it seems that some horror indie games focus less on the narrative and more on the overall experience, ambiance, and mechanisms of the game. In Slender, the only driving narrative force are the notes you put together, but in between finding them, the only narrative is the one in your head(usually muffled by screaming).

He only wants a hug.
A lot of them feature a protagonist with amnesia, furthering the idea that there is no narrative. It's been erased, and it's up to you to find it. This makes it easy to assume the identity of the character since all the details are left out, and creating that player-game connection that makes the suspension of reality all the easier. And as with many of these indie games, the controls depend on curiosity and becoming the movements rather than just playing them out(Super Meat Boy is a great example, since the player is the tutorial).

Because indie games are focused on mechanisms, innovation, and immersion, they offer a different experience than titles like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. And while mainstream games were once the go-to of horror, there's been a decline in this genre, or more of a shift, from mainstream to indie, who have been listening to the complaints and the disappointments of gamers and gone to work. 

We've seen it all when it comes to those typical horror features, but in indie games, we're not sure what to expect. Games like Fatal Frame succeeded in leaving a footprint due to that idea of the player having no real control. In the game, you're equipped with a camera, and that's all you can use to defeat enemies. Just...passively snapping pics. And this certainly creates a level of panic. But we see less and less of this innovation in mainstream games and some seriously disturbing advances in indie games.

Hopefully, they can bring the horror genre back.


In the spirit of Halloween, I'd like to give two lucky readers a chance to own a really fun, indie horror game for Steam tonight. Just move on over to the Facebook event page and leave a comment there in the thread about your favorite horror game, character, what you like about the genre, anything you want! Just make it horror-related. Be sure to  leave a "like!"

In light of its amazing-ness, one person will win Amnesia: The Dark Descent and experience the fear for themselves. Another reader will win Home, a creepy horror pixel adventure.

Contest closes at 10:00PM EST tonight. Winner announced tonight!

Good luck!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Great Gatsby- From Novel to NES

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across this hidden gem:

The Great Gatsby for NES

Apparently found at a yard sale and bought for 50 cents, this original NES game had nothing more than a funky old game booklet that somehow linked it to "an unreleased localization of a Japanese cart called 'Doki Doki Toshokan: Gatsby No Monogatari.'"
A martini a day keeps the doctor away.

You get to play as the narrator of the famous book, Nick Carraway, and fight your way through hordes of butlers, flappers, and "tommyguns." Your weapon of choice--a stylish hat! And if you happen to get hit by an enemy and lose a health point, a martini's all you need to feel better.

The game is lathered with phrases like "old sport" and "two-bit town," and does a decent job of summing up the main themes and events of The Great Gatsby in the span of a little over 10 minutes.

But imagine my surprise when a quick search revealed that it was all a clever hoax by the founders of the website! Of course there's no NES Gatsby game(part of me still didn't want to believe it).

And yet, I couldn't be upset. Here, a couple of game developers took a classic piece of literature, revived it, and well, made it relevant to more than just English majors. They even managed to combine it with the worthy and retro medium of the NES. Using an interactive and compelling art form, this game succeeds where the book may not. Nostalgia for both, the video gaming world and that of classic literature ensures that this isn't the last we see of a retro-rendition of some of the world's legendary authors. Hopefully, this has inspired other game developers to make reading fun and video games even more reflective of the world around us.

Legend of Frankenstein, anyone?

So play the game, or even watch the game. It's good fun!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

You Should Read This #2

Have you played the Binding of Issac yet? Probably one of the most disturbing indie games you can torture yourself with this month.

If you haven't, maybe this comic by Huw Davies will change your mind.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nintendo's Strange Intentions

Urban Dictionary defines the gamer as:
1.)Someone who plays video games when bored...usually very good at it

2.) Someone who plays video games as a hobby 
However, in the recent Nintendo commercials, you can play video games but not be a gamer. The two commercials showcase two women happily tapping away at their Nintendo DS, either as an artist or as a coin collector but surprisingly, not as a gamer. Now, something tells me that Nintendo was just trying to reach a wider audience and this was just one attempt at influencing those of the non-gaming variety, but they way it came across...

...Not nice, Nintendo.

The term "gamer" has been attributed over the years to those serious and hardcore players, or even those who play occasionally. But as the years pass, the term gamer is growing to encompass more than what used to be the average momma's boy sitting in the basement until the wee hours of the morning. A gamer can be a social gamer, a mobile gamer, an online gamer, and so on. Well then, why are we so afraid of being classified as one?
What about this babe? Hawt.

It would seem that Nintendo is grasping at the concept of the gamer as a lazy, unfulfilled, procrastinating member of society. They took the stereotype and amplified three more times by having the commercial star an attractive woman and a young female athlete. God knows there aren't any beautiful female gamers! Right?

Wrong. Two out of five gamers are female, and they can't all be ugly. 

So now we have these commercials that are being played on channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network that are only proliferating the stereotype by telling little girls "If you want to be successful, don't be a gamer. Just play Nintendo DS games instead."

This furthers that already innate schism between boys and girls and perpetuates the notion that the video game industry is a boy's world. If girls play video games, it's for a completely different reason--probably because they're giving in to their artistic side or mindlessly chasing coins.

Ultimately, Nintendo is trying to appeal to that audience that dislikes the "gamer," the sexist, hateful, 4chan lurking, lazy mostly male no-gooder. Except that in doing so, they're saying you can play video games and not be a "gamer." In the world of gamers, if you play a video game and you do it often, you're a gamer. Sure, the opinion varies here to there, but someone will classify you as a gamer, however horrible that may be.

I save pricesses. Others draw ice cream.
There were so  many different ways to go with this. I get it. With video games, you can be anything. When I'm playing L.A. Noire, I'm a hard-ass cop who can't drive. If I'm Commander Shepard, I'm saving the known universe. And sometimes, I'm a Princess-saving hero. But I can't be any of these things if I'm not a gamer.

And that's why you should join the dark side.
We have Doritos.
And Mountain Dew.

Image Source: The Frisky

Friday, October 12, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie--Review

From what began as a Kickstarter project, Canadian producers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky followed the lives of three indie game developers, highlighting their struggle, successes, and deepest desires. As the first documentary on indie games, a lot was expected from this film, but I'm here to tell you that it delivers, even if not how many hoped it would.

The film follows the game designers behind the extremely popular indie games Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid. Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, is probably the lesser focus of the three, but is instead intended as an example of success in the indie world, coming in and out of the film in a few short bursts to talk about his journey and his post-success. But at the very core of this movie sits the personal and emotional story of Phil Fish(Fez) and the super duo Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes(Super Meat Boy).

This movie was amazing. Pajot and Swirsky are incredibly involved and passionate about these games and their developers, and it shows. The two make certain that the focal point of the movie are the designers through tactics like close-ups, interviews, and, oftentimes, very personal questions. It aims to show and start a dialogue about indie designers and it accomplished this by giving the backstage tour of four real people.

The main character of Fez gets his
3-D powers from wearing the
Arabian hat of the same name.
I've seen many a review that complain about the dramatic moments in the film. There's a lot of mention that these "dramatic" scenes involve drawing out events that would normally be humdrum in real life, like for example, when Fish's game Fez encounters buggy problems during its debut at PAX. Sure, many of the scenes as well as the same themes show up often--McMillen and Refenes' time crunch and Fish's depression--but it does reveal the truth behind these three gamer designer's life. That truth is repetition. Like any passion or goal in life, repetition is going to come up. These are people who sit at desks for unwarranted amounts of time because they're life dream demands it. Yeah, it's repetitive...

...but it only furthers that real sense or feeling behind these men and their lifelong goals. Indie developers are real people with real problems and real reactions, and the way it's framed by Pajot and Swirsky offers an accessible, human approach to a field that is typically considered cold, calculating, and computer generated. 

This is the true side of indie games, featuring the struggle but also that drive that makes these games so fresh, appealing, and inherently human. McMillen talks about his childhood, about his fear of loneliness, of becoming so engrained in a project that he cuts himself from the world completely. These thoughts and emotions cultivated themselves in McMillen's game, Aether, where a boy and his monster glide through the galaxy in search of a friend. There's such a real, genuine thing here that commercial games mainly lack--a true human side to the worlds we escape to.

Edmund McMillen probably comtemplating monsters, sales day, and hairless cats.
Source: Rock Paper Shotgun

Of course, like so many other fantastic films, this one too had its flaws. The first one made plainly visible is the film's lack of history on the indie industry. Just who is the audience here? Some more experienced gamers  might have this history down but the newcomers or the people who have never laid a finger on a directional pad might have no clue about the enormous history of indie games. There are a few places within the movie that I found myself asking "Would someone outside the game industry have any idea what that is?" And yet, this lack of information is not just a negative, but a positive in the sense that it may propel the viewer into researching more.

While the lives of these developers were surely interesting, I also found it generated a lot of questions about the actual games themselves. Braid, for example, has some very original and interesting time mechanics that are never mentioned. We hear Blow talk about his disappointment when he realizes that people are liking his game but missing the point he intended and yet, we never get to see the game and make our own opinions on why that may be. Similarly, Fez is a 3-D and 2-D world, but for people outside of the gaming diaspora  it might not be easy to see why that's so mind-boggingly awesome or refreshing just from the film alone. By leaving out the intelligence and inner-workings of the game, Pajot and Swirsky also paint the indie industry as creators of platforming games only, which is a huge mistake.

Even with these flaws, it's easy to argue that Pajot an Swirsky knew what they were doing. Easily, they entice the audience, gamer or not, to want to watch these lives pan out. The emotion is there, right on screen. It almost feels like you're right there with them, experiencing these failures and successes altogether. By the end of the film, you're rooting for these people. This is an incredible documentary that tells it like it is and manages to open the door for the next wave of indie films to answer the questions it stirs up inside us.

You can watch Indie Game: The Movie on Netflix currently, and buy your own hard copy at a steal from

Also, stay tuned for indie games of 2012!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

For Whom the Game Tolls

Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls not for thee.

Okay, so I may have done a little editing there, but it's true--modern game characters don't really ever die. Think back to the days of Mario, when losing a life could be the difference between losing an hour of your own life and having the time of your life. No worries though. You can always start over. The concept of lives and Game Over screens are a vestigial aspect of arcade games, long before home consoles were created. People became accustomed to the idea and so, it stuck. But as the industry progressed, so too did the role of death. Instead of players suspending their beliefs to participate in a game, death as a mechanic and death as a philosophy intertwine in the games of today.

 Game developers have done death in creative ways. Prince of Persia works with the idea that you can control time and go back to the point when you were still living. In one game of the series, the main character is saved by the princess Elika, who swoops in and stops you from dying. But after one boss fight, Elika is frozen in time and the only way to revive her is to take a leap of faith, forcing her out of her frozen state to catch you. In that one moment, for the first time in the game, death becomes very real for the player.

Elika saves the prince. Again. Source: EMagill

Games like Prince of Persia threaten the player with death(as it should be) and add tension to a typically monotonous and unexplained game mechanism. In Halo 2, you play as the human super-solider Master Chief, arguably the only person who could save the known universe, and yet, you die and respawn over and over with the only consequence being mild annoyance. One could hypothesize that in games like this, when you die and respawn you're actually in an alternate dimension where you haven't died yet. Although, this is more of the philosophy. What about the mechanic?

In games, it's the simplest mechanic. You fall in a pit of spikes and, naturally, you die. If there's no fear of dying or failing the level, then there's less of a challenge and a game becomes boring. Games like Dark Souls emphasize death with high difficulty and challenge. Within the game, dying means losing all of your items, starting from the last save, and then going at it all over again(just thinking about it makes me want to burn the disk). So it really all depends on what game developers want to do--highlight or underplay death. Either option has its perks, but it still feels like most games treat death as an annoying tickle in the back of your throat, a hiccup on your interactive journey to the end, but then again, there are times when the narrative is more important than punishing the player.

Death defying time controls
 in Braid
Despite death's occasional annoyance, there are times when it becomes far more than a penalty. In fact, these modern games may be turning death into development. Braid, an award winning platform and puzzle game, actually requires that the player commit suicide in order to solve certain puzzles. It's a general concept; as you learn your way around any video game, sometimes you wonder "Can I make this jump?" The result for finding out is either advancing or starting over with a little more knowledge on what won't work.

In Super Meat Boy, an indie platform game, death becomes your tutorial. The main character, Meat Boy, can perform a great deal of stunts like double jumping, hopping up walls, and leaping over great distances, none of which you'd find out about with dying first. As Meat Boy, the only way your adventure continues is through death, as you instantly respawn and learn about your character and the world he lives in. The point of the game is to beat the levels as quickly as possible, so dying does become a hindrance. You have to become Meat Boy if you want to be the fastest.

In Super Meat Boy, you can see all your deaths on the same level at the same time. Source:

Death is a challenge that game developers face. It asks a thousand questions and creates a million answers, but what we're seeing lately are the same solutions over and over again. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Maybe not, but neither is breaking the mold. The way a game deals with death has adverse effects on game play, narrative, and overall experience. We've seen some successful games turn death into a valuable part of the experience. Next time you hear the bell toll, don't wonder if it's for you--wonder when it'll toll next.

Special thanks to Jared Ashcraft for letting me pick apart his brain.

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