Open Worlds- An Introduction

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Open Worlds- An Introduction

We play games in an ever growing world. I mean that literally, in the sense that there are more people playing video games now than ever before, but also in the sense that worlds we play games in are growing. Expanding to ever greater horizons. 

Sometimes, it's because they do incredible new things, shattering our perceptions of what games can be and how they can play. Those are the special games, the one's we'll remember in years, even decades. Often times though, games will go for a more obvious solution to the innovation problem- they get bigger.

Last year, Metal Gear Solid was announced as going open world, so were Mirror's Edge, The Witcher, even Zelda went open world with Link Between Worlds. Every new AAA game announced that isn't a first person shooter is probably either an open world game, or features some open world mechanics. Open worlds are pretty much where it's at these days. Yet, we don't often see a ton of innovation on that concept. Grand Theft Auto is the same core game that it's been since GTA III, Assasin's Creed's solution to improving its open world was to make it bigger and pull a Wind Waker by taking you to the seas. Our worlds are getting bigger, but not necessarily better in any tangible way. 

Meanwhile, games in the indie space don't tackle the open world nearly as much as their AAA counterparts. Is it a resource thing? Do they not want to follow the trends set forth by the mainstream industry? Retro City Rampage, an NES-styled take on Grand Theft Auto gameplay took years to make, and didn't really set the world on fire. Even Minecraft, which is technically open world, isn't really played for that aspect. The upcoming No Man's Sky looks absolutely fascinating, but, like Minecraft, it's open world is procedurally generated, making it a pretty different take on the norm. Is that the future of open worlds? Co-opting rogue-like tropes and appealing them to a wider audience?

In a nutshell, what is the future of open worlds? Are they the most stagnant genre in our medium of murder simulators? Or are they, like their name implies, open to changes that we can't even imagine yet? 

Let's get lost. 

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

 HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

 Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

 Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

 TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

 Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

 Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

 I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

 To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

It's not often game franchises get to die with dignity. Guitar Hero didn't get to die until Activision bled it dry and killed the entire plastic- instrument genre with it. Final Fantasy, once a bastion of quality in a sea of ho-hum RPGs, is something like fourteen-and-a-half tortured installments deep into a series whose glory days are long past. It took the combined threat of three mostly-lame games to kill the Mana series, only for it to rise again as a free-to-play mobile game. So when Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy was announced as the last Professor Layton game, I took notice. A series I love was about to end on its own terms, and I was ready to hate. There was no way this wasn’t a last ditch attempt by Level 5 to avoid driving Layton into the ground.

Turns out they were just proving that he could still soar, one last time.

 They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

 Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

For those new to the Layton series, there have been six games, as well as a mobile spin-off over the last seven years, starting with Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village in 2007. They’re pretty simple affairs, point-and-click adventure games in the classic Lucasarts style, but stuffed to bursting with logic puzzles. Every character in the world is ready to drop some creative math problems on you, just you wait. Azran Legacy is the sixth Layton game, the end to a trilogy of prequels that take place before the first game, and purportedly the end of the series. To be fair, this isn’t actually the last game, technically speaking. Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney is miraculously coming to western shores next month, but that came out before Azran Legacy in its native Japan. Also, there’s Layton 7, but that looks like some sort of mobile-based farmville knockoff for now, not the top-hatted puzzler I know and love. Azran Legacy is the end of the Professor Layton  series as we know it though.

As you’d expect, when you make six games in seven years, there’s not a lot of room for innovation. The formula hasn’t really changed much since 2007. In fact, longtime fans might start the story thinking they’re suffering from a bout of deja-vu. Professor Layton and his entourage (earnest apprentice Luke and butt-kicking assistant Emmy) receive a letter from a fellow archaeology professor who’s uncovered a “living mummy”. From there, they go on an adventure wherein they save the world, mostly through solving ludicrous mysteries and finding out exactly how many sheep an absent minded farmer has.

 Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Speaking of mysteries, Layton is renowned for its insane eleventh hour plot twists and Azran Legacy does not disappoint. The writers are in top form on this one, with not one, not two, but six bonkers Layton-signature plot twists for each of their main mysteries. For those keeping track at home, Professor Layton once resolved a plot by explaining everyone was high on mine gas the whole time.

So why six mysteries? Well, in what sounds like a design choice made while desperately trying to understand what appeals to westerners,  Azran Legacy is an open world game. After a few hours, Layton and company have their choice of five areas to explore, each hiding an Azran Egg, the magical macguffins you’ve been sent to find. You can tackle these areas in any order you like, or hop between them at your leisure with the fast travel provided by your airship. It sounds sort of pointless, but it manages to solve two of the series’ biggest issues in one fell swoop. First, it takes away the one massive area you navigate throughout the game. One of my biggest complaints with the last game, Miracle Mask, was that by the end of the game you were spending 5 minutes just trying to get around its enormous city. Having a handful of smaller areas lets each be tighter, more navigable, and cuts backtracking almost entirely out of the equation.

 San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

 I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

The other bonus is more themed puzzles. Part of Layton’s charm has always been theming its puzzles around the areas you play them in. Card and gambling puzzles in the casino, boat puzzles by the lake, that sort of thing. Each area is a different part of the world, so Spanish riviera-style San Grio is going have significantly different puzzles than Torrido’s take on Texas. It’s cute and fixes the issue that it was often hard to tell if you were getting any better at certain puzzle types in previous games. Segmenting puzzles like that gives a real sense of progression, where you’ll find three puzzles of the same type in one area, not scattered around the world so far from each other you forget how to solve them. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to solve them all, since Azran Legacy keeps up the series tradition of stuffing the game with something like 200 puzzles, plus free daily downloadable puzzles for the next year. This one's going to last you a while.

Those puzzles, by the way, are pretty much spectacular. The puzzlemasters at Level 5 have really outdone themselves here, with clever, challenging puzzles that rarely overstay their welcome. Also, there seem to be less math-focused puzzles, which is a welcome boon to my number-numb brain. If brain teasers and logic puzzles don’t set your heart afire, Azran Legacy isn’t going to win you over, there’s nothing new here. After six of these games though, you’d expect them to really nail puzzle design, and Azran Legacy  doesn't live down expectations. There’s not one gimmick puzzle focused on closing the 3DS lid, or blowing into the microphone, or viewing something in 3D in the whole game. They’ve cut out the more irrelevant minigames from Miracle Mask, like horse racing, and top-down dungeon crawling. No puzzle type gets more than three or four uses, and even those permutations get real clever. There’s a puzzle about seals balancing balls that can really throw you for a loop the last time it pops up. The game isn’t necessarily innovating, but it is refining. It’s polishing bone.

 Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

As usual, the art is beautiful, with that unique Triplets of Belleville meets ligne claire style that no one seems to be able to replicate. They also managed to knock 3D effects out of the park on this one, if that’s your bag. Some of the areas, like the waterfall in Phong Gi, the jungle area, look absolutely incredible with the 3D slider on. I often found myself poking around environments, then turning on 3D just to see how they looked. Also up to par is the dialogue, which remains charming and well written, if occasionally poorly voice acted. Characters from pretty much every game in the series pop their heads in to say goodbye here, so long time fans will get a nostalgic kick out of seeing old Inspector Chelmey bumbling around the world again, though some cameos don’t really serve any purpose.

 "Quack."

"Quack."

There are moments when Azran Legacy shines even brighter though. Moments when you realize how special it all is. At one point, Layton and Luke take it upon themselves to make a tribal chieftain laugh, so the professor puts on a duck bill, and in a lavishly animated cutscene, belts out a deadpan “quack”. Then, for the next few minutes of game time, Layton is still wearing the duck bill on his model. They not only prioritized a full anime cutscene for a one-off gag, they also made sure to model the prop for the game proper. It’s ridiculous and silly, but altogether charming in a refreshing way. Layton cares so little about being a “mass market appeal” game. You solve all your problems with puzzles, you talk to squirrels about their day, you never even harm a fly. The graphics are a PlayStation 1-style mix of 2D and 3D that work because of how gorgeous the cel-shaded art style is. Layton makes no overtures to capture the Call of Duty aesthetic everyone is going for these days, nor does it care about courting the Candy Crush players who everyone’s after. It knows that it’s all coming to an end, but since it gets to end on its own terms, it isn’t changing a thing about itself for anyone.

 Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Other than the parade of cast members from games gone by though, it was often easy to forget that its the last Layton game, because it never really made a big deal of it. While it wraps up the lingering plot threads of the previous two games (as well as brings the movie into canon), and ties it all together with a suitably epic finale, it doesn’t really require you to know any of that. It could be a standalone game if it really wanted to. Maybe because it has to directly lead into the first game in the series, it never lingers too long on a melancholy note. Azran Legacy doesn’t really seem to mind dying very much. It doesn’t relish it by any means, but it feels like the designers took a special sort of dignity in getting to go out on a high note, and they don’t waste it on pointless call backs.

After six games, there’s not much left to do, and Azran Legacy refines the Layton formula down to the bone. There’s no fat left here anymore. There are no flaws left to fix. It’s unapologetic in its finality, almost as if to say “this is it, this is perfect Layton, and if you don’t like it now, then you never will.” And, it basically is the perfect Professor Layton game. It’s not quite my favourite, Unwound Future’s plot twist is hard to beat, and I could listen to its puzzle duel music all day, but Azran Legacy is better than any of its predecessors in almost every conceivable way. The puzzles are spectacular, the world is finally manageable, the script is wonderfully charming, and even though the art style already made the polygonal jump perfectly in Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy ups the ante with incredible 3D effects and beautiful backdrops. It’s not going to convert any haters, but Azran Legacy is perfect, pure, Professor Layton. No frills, no gimmicks. I can’t think of a more fitting send off for a true gentleman.

 This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

VERDICT: Thumbs up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

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Why do Romantic Options Suck?

Commander Citrine Shepard of the SSV Normandy didn’t have time for romance. To her, the characters who wanted to jump her bones were boring, flat, and occasionally psychotic. Thane was clearly on a suicidal rebound after the death of his wife, Jacob may as well have been a computer terminal that hung out in the weapons lab, and Garrus was just a friend. Not to mention Samara was the virgin mary and the commander would feel like a predator by responding to Yeoman Chambers’ repeated requests for a consequence-free night. Either way, this was a suicide mission goddamnit. No time for fun or games or trying to figure out how you would even get Garrus’s armor off in the first place.

 I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I will take ANY excuse to use this image. Any excuse.

I mean, isn’t that thing like fused to his body at this point? Have you ever seen him wear a t-shirt?

In real life though, Commander Shepard didn’t romance anyone because the player (me) wasn’t interested in the handful of options presented. Personally, Tali seemed like a fun character to interact with, and I like her rapport with my Shepard. It seemed a shame she couldn’t be romanced by a Shepard of either gender. So, I rolled a male Shepard on another run just to see what happened.

I was just as bored with her romance as I was with everyone else’s.

 Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Quarian containment suits also function as convenient censors in case of unexpected intimate situations.

Bioware games are often hailed as some of the best written games of all time, with fantastic characters and, of course, romantic options. Unfortunately, those romantic options fall flat more often than not. Just be nice to a character, and eventually they’ll want to jump your bones. Then, you’re treated to a sexless sex scene and go on with your game, only ever thinking about it when the character mentions your night together in passing.

The problem is that there isn’t a lot of space in Mass Effect, or even any Bioware game, to develop a relationship past the surface level one presented to you. Tali might grow as a character after you complete her loyalty missions and see how she acts in dire situations, but your relationship with her never goes beyond a commander-subordinate or friend-friend, unless you flip the magic switch that makes her super physically attracted to you.

 These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

These kids belong together, mostly because they can never ever leave their crazy space armor,

Dating sims excel at growing a believable relationship between you and another character because that’s all they do. You only get to have actual conversations with your partner characters in Mass Effect between missions, the meat of the game. Essentially, it’s a matter of where the gameplay focus is. If the gameplay focus is romance, you need to make it work. If it’s shooting aliens with fireballs, romance is probably a secondary concern.

That’s not to say what Bioware does isn’t admirable. Their characters are spectacular, and it’s easy to see why people want to fall in love with any of them. Garrus is charmingly awkward, Tali is sweet and kind, Jacob is...uh...well, you get the gist. There’s the secondary problem of the odd selection of characters you’re given to romance. There are always complaints that certain characters’ romances are exclusive to one gender, or that some characters aren’t romanceable at all.

In fact, Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider addressed this in a blog post recently. He mentioned that people are always disappointed, either in the romances themselves or the selection of available romances. He says he’s been accused of having an agenda by fans angry that their character didn’t get picked. And he answers the burning question that’s been scorching my tongue since the Tali romance annoyed me so much, why not drop them entirely?

 To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

To be fair, Dragon Age gets a little more risque than Mass Effect does, but that's probably because Alistair doesn't wear a 10-ton suit that's keeping him alive.

Gaider says that Bioware’s strength is in their character writing. That romances are a Bioware signature, something unique that they do that almost every other major game developer can’t even get started on, let alone get right. Gaider asks what they could replace romances with? Whatever it is, he says, had better be “damned good.”

And I’m inclined to agree with Gaider, if only because other romantic “options” fall flat on their faces. Maybe Bioware doesn’t nail the romantic part of the equation, or even the choice part super well, but they do make characters you want to fall in love with. I’ve never seen another game with characters that even get close to approaching that.

 "It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

"It's only natural that I fall in love...because you are the protagonist and you talked to me like 30 times."

The Persona games feature various romantic options as “social links”, relationships you can build to give you a boost in battle. The problem is, there’s really no choice to them. Sure, you can pick better options that’ll please your chosen paramour, but at the end of the day, as long as you talk to them enough, they’ll go out with you. Persona 4 doesn’t even penalize you for cheating on your girlfriends. You could be dating the entire town, and no one even bats an eye. And trust me, they all know, it’s a tiny town.

 Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Hubba's a creepy old man, but at least he's open minded.

Fire Emblem: Awakening’s shipping mechanic, in which you pair off characters to increase their stats and create new units from their children is less about romance and more about playing matchmaker god. Pick who goes with who, and as long as they’re compatible, they’ll pop out a kid for your army. No choices, no mess, no fuss. It’s like chess, but you can pick the pieces up and make them kiss until a new piece magically appears.

Even games that feature romantic interests for their protagonists without the illusions of choice tend to be lame. Uncharted’s Elena exists mostly to shrug and look annoyed whenever protagonist Nathan Drake quips after slaughtering a village of mercenaries. Most of the time, we don’t even get to to know the love interests. Shadow of the Colossus starts with the death of Mono, Wander’s beloved, and we have to help rescue her. Dishonored begins with the murder of the empress, and then eventually gets around to telling the player that oh yeah, turns out she and Corvo were totally getting it on in the bedroom and you should probably take this whole thing more personally.

 To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

To be fair, Mono never said NOT to make a deal with the devil for her life. She never really said anything, actually...

That’s mostly a quirk of writing though. Revenge is an easy motivation for the slaughter of thousands,  and games tend to have less than stellar writing, simply because they need to put their priorities into making something that plays well. Obviously, there are plenty of games that buck the trend, but when you combine stilted writing and the illusion of romantic choice, you’re just asking for disaster.

 Go on! Bake her a cake!

Go on! Bake her a cake!

Very few games nail both sides of that equation Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story is a visual novel with dating sim elements, and has two spectacularly well-written paths for its romanceable characters. Of course, they’re the only two characters in the game, and since it’s a visual novel, it lives and dies by its writing. Unfortunately though, it’s not the standard. Most of the time we have games like Persona, with great writing, but sort of lackluster “romance” elements, or Fire Emblem, with an interesting romance system, but a lack of real options.

 CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

CHROM: LIVE AND UNCENSORED.

Seriously, the fact that Fire Emblem: Awakening doesn’t let you ship the male cast with each other is a crying shame, especially considering the way some of them act around each other.

But, romantic options are here to stay, simply because they’re popular, and for good reason. We like having choices, we like to customize our experience. Also, some consumers really like the idea that they’ll get a PG 13 sex scene at some point during the game. But, they might just keep feeling half-hearted, at least for a little bit.

Big-budget, AAA titles don’t prioritize fantastic writing, because it’s not something they think their core audience cares about. Similarly, they tend to avoid having same-sex relationships in games because they want to remain “uncontroversial”. Due to budget and time concerns, It’s harder for smaller indie games, which often have the space to prioritize good writing, to have significant romantic options if that isn’t the whole point of their game, like in Analogue. Like it or not Bioware really is the only studio with a big budget behind them who tries to have significant romantic options at all in a game that isn’t about romance. Maybe Intelligent Systems will try harder with their next Fire Emblem though. Hopefully they learn from their mistakes, because man, I ship Chrom and Frederick so hard.

 They're adorable!

They're adorable!

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

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Adults Only- The History of Sex in Video Games

Games can’t have sex in them. Sure, Mass Effect can insinuate sex and cut to black, and God of War can feature a topless lady or two, but when it comes to a realistic, mature depiction of sex, major publishers and the ESRB get skittish.

 Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Look, we're gonna be playing loose with screenshots here. Things might get NSFW in here, but hopefully nothing that could get you in trouble beyond an awkward glance or two.

Full frontal, uncensored nudity will get you slapped with an AO rating. Adults only, 17 and up, the video game equivalent of movie’s NC17. It’s been described as the kiss of death for any game that gets it, since none of the console manufacturers let AO games on their machines, and many brick and mortar stores refuse to stock them as well. Games that get the dreaded AO are often resubmitted with edits and censors to bring them down to an R, just because they’d never sell otherwise. The only console games rated AO are Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which was re-rated after the hot coffee scandal, and re-re-rated after a patch, and Thrill Kill, which was never released. Everything else is sleazy PC games like Riana Rouge, and Wet: The Sexy Empire.

 An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

An extremely NSFW screenshot from Night Life. So filthy.

So PC is where sexy games thrive, not just in North America, but all over the world. While North Americans got Sierra’s Soft Porn Adventure in 1981, Japan was hot on our tail just a year later, with Koei’s Night Life, a PC-8801 game that birthed the eroge (EROtic + GamE) genre. Interestingly, Night Life wasn’t meant for single dudes; it was marketed towards couples, with a catalog of sex positions to try out and a schedule for tracking a woman’s period. It might seem weird that Koei was at the fore of the sex game industry, but other Japanese publishers jumped on that boat immediately. Square, Enix and Nihon Falcom all published early eroge in the 80s. In 1986, a company called Macadamia Soft released 177, a game named after the Japanese legal code for rape, wherein the layer character did some pretty horrible things. The controversy made it all the way to the Japanese diet, and cooled eroge publishing for a time, until developers banded together to put 18+ stickers on all their games, a practice that still exists in Japan to this day.

Not to be beat, American developer Mystique upped the ante, releasing the infamous Atari 2600 “porn games” Bachelor Party, Custer’s Revenge, and Beat ‘Em and ‘Eat Em in 1982. All three are renowned for being generally awful, amazingly offensive, and for being punchlines that come up whenever sex and games are mentioned in the same breath. Mystique vanished in 1983, another victim of the video game market crash, and was replaced by Playaround, who went on to release a handful of adult-themed games, though impressively, each of Playaround’s games had two modes, one intended for men, and the other for women. Of course, they were aimed towards straight men and women, but still, a fairly forward thinking move from a company who almost released a role-reversed version of Custer’s Revenge.

 If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

If your boss asks you what this is, look them dead in the eyes and say "HISTORY", Then, clean out your desk. 

 Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

Gals Panic is SFW as long as you're bad at it.

After that, Japan started delving deeper into new erotic genres. ASCII made Chaos Angels, an erotic RPG, in the 90s, Kaneko modified Qix, Taito’s tile-revealing puzzle game and put pictures of women in various states of undress under the tiles, making Gals Panic. Japanese developers were, and are, fantastic with names. Meanwhile, America was seeing tamer games like Leisure Suit Larry in 1987, which featured no nudity, but strong sexual themes. It was definitely made for adults, with lots of sexual references and dirty jokes, but it rarely gets any more mature than, say, Family Guy. Even so, retailers refused to stock Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra employees threatened to quit over the game, and Sierra received massive amounts of hate mail.

Dating sims and erotic visual novels dominate Japanese PC games in a way we don’t see here. Sex is just a fact of games there, while in North America, even Leisure Suit Larry’s tame, 14A approach to sexuality was cause for uproar. Of course, eroge have their own set of issues, like the growing number of underage, or loli, characters being featured, which has been cracked down on by the Japanese Diet, but that seems like a fairly reasonable thing for the media to get up in arms about. Either way, both in the East and West, sex and games mostly meet on PC.

Once CD-ROM games picked up, and the multimedia craze of the late 90s got into swing, full motion video became a natural fit for western erotic games. Black Dragon’s Riana Rouge, one of the few AO-rated games, featured a Playboy Playmate in the starring role, with stunning, 1996-quality video encoding to make sure you couldn’t see very much of the uncensored material anyway.

 Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

Yeah, you're gonna have to help me figure out what's going on here, then explain how it's erotic.

 It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

It really does look that guy in the back is growing out of his partner's butt. I don't think he is, but if that's what you want, Second Life can provide.

These days however, porn games in the west tend to fly under the radar They’re low budget productions that rarely find wide distribution or popularity. Bonetown, a 2008, download-only PC game from before being a download-only PC game was cool, is known almost exclusively as a punchline, just like Mystique’s games. But that’s pretty much where erotic games end in the West. Bioware continues to put romance options and sexless sex scenes in their games, and modders will never cease striping the clothes off of any character who happens to be in a PC game, and that’s about it. There’s also Second Life, which, pretty much caters to any kind of sexual desire or fetish you can think of. However, all of the sex and sexual associations we attribute to Second Life are exclusively fan contributions. People use Second Life as a way to live out certain sexual fantasies at times, and, as far as I can tell, it seems to be doing a much better job of it than any other game on the market, even if it wasn’t explicitly intended for that purpose.

Japan continues to have erotic games, mostly in the visual novel genre at this point though. Mirroring the trend of recent adult-themed interactive fiction games, those developers seem to have found that it’s easier to create the illusion of a sexual encounter with drawings rather than 3D models, and words rather than janky penis controls. Sex simulators are mostly the realm of games like the controversial RapeLay, which, for all of its truly disgusting aspects, also happens to be a pretty terrible game, and a worse sex simulation. But first and foremost, it is disgusting.

 Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Did you really think you were gonna get a screen shot of that?

Otherwise, the highest profile sex game in recent memory was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s hot Coffee scene, a sex minigame left in the debug menu that was unlocked by a hacker fan. Of course, after being discovered, Rockstar ruched to correct the issue while being assaulted by a media frenzy about how games were corrupting the innocent children with weird, janky, polygonal sex. After that, it’s mostly indie developers, as well as authors who contribute to the growing pool of adult interactive fiction. As the industry matures, fewer people seem to want to throw their hats into the sexy ring.

People want sex, sure. Sex will always sell, but publishers don’t let it. When it comes to video games, it’s probably more accurate to say that the promise of sex sells, because real sex isn’t something the ESRB, Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo want to let you get involved in. Meanwhile, indie developers are working in smaller confines, often in less popular genres, where it would be more difficult to accurately simulate sex in any realistic way. Plus, plenty of people don’t want to be seen as making porn, which is pretty reasonable.

 177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

177's game over screen, otherwise known as what you see if you're a good person.

Of course, sexual themes still work their way into western games. As mentioned multiple times, Bioware insists that all their games have romantic options that culminate in sex scenes, indie developer Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and Hate Plus games include a sex scene or two among the many logs you read, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a AAA game that didn’t make a dick joke somewhere in it. The promise of sex sells, and it will continue to, because if anyone ever promises more, Fox News will bear down on them like a sack of hammers, just like the did to Rockstar.

Is it a good thing? Well, even in Japan, where sex in games goes unchecked, we get games like RapeLay and 177. In the west, we get exploitative titles like Bonetown and Rianna Rouge. Sex is a great thing, but when it comes to industrializing it, it seems impossible to avoid the sleaze. So next time you see a sex scene in a game, appreciate all the risks it took to get it in there, and also pray that Oculus Rift VR sex games don’t take off anytime soon. You know, just to be safe.


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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

This month’s primer is about love. Falling in love, romantic love, platonic love, sexy love, and everything in between. So, games about love, basically, in some way or another. Some fail at presenting their view on love, some succeed, but all of them make love a central focus of at least a part of the game. But hey, let’s stop talking and fall in love with some games, shall we?

Chulip:

 Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Chulip is a video game about consent. It’s also a video game about kissing enough people in order to gain the strength to survive a lightning bolt to the face.

Chulip is weird.

You play as a boy, who, after being rejected by the girl of his dreams, decides he has to kiss everyone in town to “strengthen his heart.” You do this by watching the daily lives of the people in town, who operate on a real-time schedule, and helping them out with their day to day lives. Once you make them happy, you can give them a kiss. If they aren’t happy, your kiss will be creepy-weird, and cause them to hit you.

Unfortunately, Chulip suffers from frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and a lack of direction. Infamously, one mission ends with your character getting struck by lightning, instantly killing you if you don’t have enough health. But the quality of the game itself aside, Chulip is fascinating as one of the few games that’s about having a positive relationship with the game world, rather than a destructive one. Hurting anyone emotionally deters or even ends your progress. Being a creep by playing on the swings at night will get you shot by cops. Kissing people who don’t want it will quickly lead to a game over. In order to progress, you need to build a positive, even loving relationship between you and the world.

But you should probably kiss someone in real life instead of playing Chulip.

 

Mass Effect 2:

 You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

Mass Effect broaches the subject of love in a few ways. There’s the obvious relationship options the game presents you with, characters your Commander Shepard can romance and bed during the adventure, each with a more embarrassing sex scene than the last. But the romantic love options will be explored in a later game on this very list, because Mass Effect 2 explores platonic love about a thousand times more effectively.

 Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a 20-hour long trust exercise, where success is measured by the strength of your relationships with your party. The final mission opens up fairly early on in the game. It’s easy to skip recruiting about half of your party, and go straight to the final boss after five or six hours of playtime. But your party will be slaughtered. Not because you aren’t a high enough level, but because your teammates don’t trust you.

 Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Every party member you recruit can offer you a “loyalty mission”, in which you help them through some personal problem that might be distracting them while on the job to save the universe. You’re encouraged to build stronger bonds with your favourite party members so they don’t die in the final mission. And those deaths are permanent. Anyone who didn’t trust you enough is dead forever, including in Mass Effect 3. Additionally, you have to assign jobs to certain characters, and through getting to know them better, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about who should be doing what. One wrong decision leads to a dead teammate, and no one wants that. Mass Effect 2 rewards forming relationships with these fictional characters. You’re supposed to get to know them, talk to them between missions, and help them with their personal issues, and for making friends and finding love, the game rewards you with a better ending.

Platonic love keeps you alive in space. As for romantic love...


Saint’s Row IV:

 This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

Saint’s Row is famous for being Grand Theft Auto’s wacky cousin. You know the one. They’re successful at what they do, but the older, more serious members of the family don’t really want to pay attention to them, lest it encourage them to act even wilder.But, unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row doesn’t particularly want to be the grim, gritty reflection of society at its worst, it wants to have fun, and that means taking things a little less seriously.

 The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

Saint’s Row IV features a pretty extensive Mass Effect parody, down to the silver and blue spaceship that you can run around between missions. Of course, the ship is filled with your party members, and every single one can be romanced, regardless of sex, gender, orientation or humanity. It’s a goofy take on Mass Effect’s often derided romance options, which Saint’s Row reduces to a single button you press to ask the other character for some good space loving.

Where Mass Effect nails platonic relationships with a cast of characters most players end up wanting to hang out with, Saint’s Row points out that many players were just going through the romantic relationships for the ending sex scenes. But it also shines a light on a few things in its irreverence. For example, Mass Effect does essentially boil down any relationship more complicated than friendship down to a binary button prompt, rather than something more elaborate. Dating sims can afford to have a long drawn out courtship phase, Mass Effect really can’t.

 ...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

Also, that Mass Effect severely limits the characters you Shepard can romance, and separates them by gender. In Mass Effect 3, A male Shepard can only romance certain female characters and one male, while a female Shepard can romance a handful of males and two female characters. In Mass Effect 2, there aren’t even any serious same-sex relationships at all. Shepard is meant to, at least partially, be an extension of yourself, and limiting your sexuality that way is pretty frustrating. Why can a female Shepard sleep with Liara but not Tali? Why can’t a male Shepard take his relationship with Garrus to the next level? Sure, certain characters may have predefined orientations, but does that mean aliens share our notions of sexuality? Can’t you at least make a move on them?

In a strange way, Saint’s Row IV is the single most progressive mainstream game when it comes to relationships. Your character can be male or female, sure, but also anything else you choose. They can be gay, straight, queer, into open relationships, pansexual, robosexual, whatever you choose. It’s a little bit sad that it took making fun of another game’s lack of progressiveness to get to the point where these this kind of inclusiveness is in a mainstream game, but at least we’re here at all.


Bioshock Infinite:

BioShock-Infinite-Elizabeth.jpg

Sort of like how Mass Effect tries to make an entire game about building multiple relationships, parts of Bioshock Infinite definitely want to make you fall in love with Elizabeth, your near-constant companion and combat partner.

26-bioshockelizabeth-fx.jpg

Not only is Elizabeth constantly around you, she’s the focus of the story, and moonlights as an on-again, off-again damsel in distress. She can interact with the world in ways you can’t, like looking through windows and sitting on benches, making her feel more real, and her animations are significantly more detailed than anything else in the game. She revives you when you die, throws out ammo when you’re running low, by all accounts, she should be a characters players grow to like by the end of the game.

The problem is that she, like most things about Bioshock Infinite, is window dressing. She’s a spawn point for ammo and health packs, and her “deeper levels of interaction” amount to sitting on benches every once in a while. It’s a cute touch, but never once does the layer actually do anything to change their relationship without the story demanding it. Where the original Bioshock is a game about player agency, Infinite tries to show what happens when you take it away. Unfortunately for it, a game centered around any relationship that removes agency sort of nullifies the whole point of a relationship.

 It's up to you! Not that it really matters

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

Infinite eventually comes around to revealing the nature of your character’s relationship with Elizabeth, but at that point it doesn’t matter. Your personal history with her as a player is entirely passive, the only choice you ever make with her is what kind of brooch should go on her necklace, which amounts to a big load of nothing. Whether or not removing player agency was part of the point of Infinite is up for debate, but your relationship with Elizabeth is meant to be the core of the game, and it’s pretty hard to fall in love when you don’t have a choice.


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Love and Games - An Introduction

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Love and Games - An Introduction

There's just something about games that make me want to love them.

Not romantically or anything. I've never wanted to go to the movies with Dark Souls, or take Spelltower out for a candlelight dinner. There's just this spark in some games that's so powerful, so fascinating, that I can't help but want to like them. There's a soul, a beautiful soul, to the best of games. A kernel of passion that proves beyond a doubt that this is something you should want to love, even if it's flawed. 

But this month isn't about loving games, it's about love in games.

Games have tried to approach love for years. Love interests in stories, romantic options for your player character, dating sims, even erotic games can all trace their roots back to the early stages of the medium. We've always been fascinated with digital love, and now, we at Built to Play want to explore that. Love is a pretty mysterious concept in the real space, but its extension into the digital space of videogames is something worth thinking about. Why do we want romantic option? Why do we want to fall in love with things we know aren't real? Why do we let dating sims put the wool over our eyes, and give us an illusory love?

Of course, there's a flip side too. Why do we hate? People hate certain games strongly enough to do something with that rage, same as love. Our primariy interaction with almost any game isn't one of love, it's one of hate, or at least disinterest, why is that? And back to taking Dark Souls out on a date, why do we get so passionate about these things, both positively and negatively? What can we use that passion for?

Love isn't something we can put a label on an understand, and that's not what we're trying to do here. We want to ask a different question. We know why love and games intersect. That much is clear. Love is something we as people crave, and thus it permeates pretty much every artistic medium we have available to us. We want to look at the points that love intersects with games, and see why those intersections matter. And also, why the absence of those intersections matter just as much.

Or in the famous words of Otacon: Do you think love can bloom even on a battlefield?

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

Hey, you.

You, sitting in front of the computer, or on your phone, or reading this in the sky due to one of the many sky writers we have strategically placed around the continental United States to advertise the site.

 I promise this is the last one.

I promise this is the last one.

You probably don’t agree with every single article we’ve published this month, that’s only natural. We think that any interactive entertainment is a video game. We published an article arguing the difference between "videogame" and "video game". We posted like, fifty screenshots of Animal Crossing.

But there’s something we feel pretty strongly about, that we need to address right here. We don’t think we really need to argue about defining video games anymore. We think interactive entertainment is good enough, but even if it isn’t, is the fight worth having?

Definitions exist because language runs on them, that’s simple enough. When I say apple, you know I’m referring to a very specific fruit because years ago, someone decided that fruit was called apple. That definition-word link is entirely arbitrary, and in fact, all definitions are. If we’re being honest here, there’s no logical reason that an apple is called and apple. It just is. Sure, apple comes from the old English “appel”, which just referred to any kind of fruit, and that term came from the Germanic “aplaz”, but all these words are just arbitrary sounds associated with a physical object. There’s no inherent logic to any definition.

 We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

If all human life was to disappear tomorrow, an apple would not be an apple anymore, would it? It would still exist, but no one would be asking anyone else for an apple. Or a pomme, or a яблоко, or a mazana. Apples would still exist, a round fruit would still grow from a tree we’ve called mallus domestica, but no one would be there to call it that. No one would call the fruit an apple. It wouldn’t be an apple, it would just exist.

Of course, we won’t all disappear tomorrow, and we’ll continue calling them apples until the Apple corporation successfully trademarks the term and sues the fruit. And we should, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to communicate the fact that we want to buy an apple at the supermarket. Definitions are important because they help us communicate.

So it’s only logical that we, as human beings that constantly desire better ways to communicate our stupidly complicated inner thoughts, want to have more definitions. We want tighter definitions with less room for error so communication is easier. That all makes a certain amount of sense.

Arguing about defining a video game really does not.

 Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's  "Pyst".

Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's "Pyst".

See, blanket definitions tend to be loose, because policing every single thing that attempts to fall under that definition is a futile effort. You’ll always miss something, it will always end up being too complicated, and it essentially defeats the purpose of having a definition in the first place. If you need to analyze everything anyway, just put the definition of video games as being on a case-by-case basis. An airtight definition can only exist once you start working in loopholes for individual titles. This is a game, this isn’t. And at that point, who are you to even say? If the definition isn’t meant to be personal, we need a governing body to determine it, something everyone trusts to take each case and examine it thoroughly. And who pays them to do this? The ESA? Some eccentric billionaire with a grudge against Myst? Eventually, they’ll end up with a loose, blanket definition anyway, just to make their job easier for them, it’s only reasonable.

So the loose definition works. We can have sub-definitions under those, for granularity’s sake, like the distinction between films and short films. Both fall under the larger definition of film, but are distinct in their own way. Sure, that’s an easier call to make, but to someone with no knowledge of movies, they’d be ostensibly similar enough to call the same thing. The distinction exists for ease of conversation.

 Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Similarly, we divide up games into genres. There are first person shooters, role playing games, platformers, racers, rhythm games, even newer genres like endless runners and minecraft knockoffs. Heck, even non-games exist, to define video games that aren’t necessarily games. They’re all subcategories of video games, and though there’s a lot of blurring between them, they’re distinct enough that they’re used in regular conversation to distinguish between different games. Those distinctions are small, and less important in the grand scheme of things, but they exist because gaming, as a community, wants to have the words to discuss things on an even ground. If we all know what an RPG is, we can discuss it better, since we operate on the same basic assumptions.

 Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

But that’s all they are, basic assumptions. A first person shooter is pretty self-explanatory. It is a genre defined by shooting from a first person perspective. Racers are game where you race. Platformers refer to the platforms you jump on in games like Mario and Sonic. They are simple, loose definitions used to make the conversation easier. Technically, Mirror’s Edge is a first-person platformer, but that genre is so small (Jumping Flash and portions of Metroid Prime round out the genre in its entirety) that the distinction is almost meaningless in casual conversation. In fact, trying to initiate a conversation about the first-person platforming genre would be ridiculous, because next to no one would know what you’re talking about.

Similarly, trying to argue about how a game needs to have a win state, or be about shooting, or needs to have a certain budget size, or must be fun, or have to be called “videogames” is just esoteric. The conversation going on about video games isn’t about that.

It’s about a larger community. It’s about the folks that work every day to make games, think, write and talk about games, or play games. It’s about accepting these people and discussing this strange, ever-growing hobby we all share. Or maybe it’s not a hobby. Maybe it’s a craft, or an obsession, or a love. Maybe it’s a passing interest. Maybe you want to have a five-minute conversation, maybe you want to have a conversation for the rest of your life. Either way, why would you lock out people who don’t fit your heavily-policed, narrow definition of what a “game” is?

 Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Refusing to accept, say, Gone Home as a game doesn’t just hurt the developers, or the people who love it. It doesn’t just frustrate the people who want to have an honest conversation about an interesting, important piece of media and now have to deal with a flamewar about defining it. It also hurts you. You aren’t participating in a grander conversation about something you like, you’re just reiterating the same points again and again, locking more and more people out of your definition- your conversation.

 I lied! This one's for real though.

I lied! This one's for real though.

Definitions are important. We need them to communicate. But we don’t need to get ridiculous about them. Video games are an interactive piece of entertainment, usually with a clear win or a loss condition, but that’s increasingly less important. There is no threshold for interactivity, there is no point in arguing that something is or isn’t a game when the game is presented to you. Even a video game that lacks traditional game elements, like Animal Crossing, is still called a video game in conversation. And when someone comes up to you, wanting to talk about video games because they love Animal Crossing, telling them that they’re wrong because it’s not really a game is as ridiculous to them as telling them they can’t talk about apples because they only had an apple pie.

They’d think you’re crazy, and maybe shy away from talking or engaging with video games in the first place. Because it’s not about your definition, or my definition, or anyone else’s. It’s about how when the subject comes up, all that happens is the same argument, again and again Nothing new is said, and more and more people are left out, because what they wanted to talk about has been subsumed by the same talking points that have been reiterated for years.

 My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

People have personal definitions about dozens of things. Once you start strictly enforcing those definitions on others you limit their ability to converse. Apple vs. apple pie seems more arbitrary than win/lose vs. interactivity to you, the seasoned apple and video games expert, but to the gaming newcomer, it’s all the same. Games might be a little more complicated than apples, sure, but not by much. At the end of the day, we don’t want to wring our hands about whether they’re games or not. All we want to do is talk about why we like them, why they’re important to us, and how they get so delicious.


 

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

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OP-ED: Semantic Kombat- Videogame vs Video Game

Every time I write the word "videogame", I get this weird squiggly red line under it in word. It means the word is wrong. It means videogame is not a word, even though I see it used on occasion over its proper alternative- video games. “Videogames” is a proper noun, versus “video games”, an adjective and a noun. So why the distinction? Both words mean the same thing, even if one technically doesn’t exist. Why have both words in the first place? Surely we should be able to just choose one at this point. Why do semantics even matter when talking about defining a game? At the risk of admitting how pretentious I am, it does matter to me, at least a little bit.

80864d98b6c60d0e85bb5ce3b77a4788.jpg

Let’s think about the term “video game” for a second. It’s two words, technically. Video, which refers to visual content, and game, something people do for amusement. So it’s a visual amusement, or specifically, a game where the visuals are on a screen. It’s a simple definition, and it doesn’t really offer too many problems. If it isn’t visual, it isn’t a “video game”. Taken on its own, game more commonly refers to an amusement played along set rules, usually with the possibility to win and lose. Video games pretty much always have rules by nature. Even in games like Minecraft, which lets the player do almost anything they want, they are still trapped in the confines of the world. There’s an internal logic to a game world, both from a narrative perspective, and a technological perspective.

 Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Anyone down for hide-and-seek?

Technologically, games can’t account for infinite possibilities. Programmers and game designers can only do so much, and that’s why you can’t develop superpowers in the middle of Call of Duty and start flying around, melting people with laser beams. Sure, they could have done that, but they put their resources and efforts into making a different kind of game. One where that doesn’t happen, and can’t, because the developers didn’t code that in. Narrative-wise, every world has rules. In Star Wars, Luke doesn’t suddenly defeat Darth Vader by turning into a giant and crushing him underfoot. The story has established Luke can’t do that. He has some pseudo-magical powers, but we all understand their limits. On the flip side, that means everything that does happen in a narrative happens for a reason, even your own personal narrative of playing the game, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

 Take THAT, cel-shading.

Take THAT, cel-shading.

For now, we understand that any game does technically have rules. You can only do what the game allows you to. However, we run into a problem with that idea. Sure, the world has established rules, but what happens if I break those rules? Speedruns often involve clipping through the game’s architecture, or glitching out certain segments to make the game go faster. Link can’t usually pass through locked doors without a key, but Wind Waker speedrunners can make him slip right through. But they’re still playing the game, they’re just playing for a different goal, with different rules. That’s part of what makes video games so great, often, you can take an existing set of rules, and layer your own over them for a totally different experience.

So rules are a bust, at least in the traditional sense. You can’t just suddenly start playing a heavily modified version of tag while everyone is playing hide and go seek, you’d be breaking the rules. Sure, you’re playing by your own, but the existence of communally agreed upon rules means you’re not the playing the game everyone else set out to, and that means less to some jerk who really care about defining games by their rules. Video game rules are inherently malleable, since, at least in a single player context, there’s no one to tell you that you’re playing incorrectly.

 My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

My uncle words at Namco and he told me that if you get to the kill screen they take you into space to pilot Mecha-Pac-Man and fight the alien ghosts.

What about win/lose states? Does a game have to let you win or lose? There is no traditional winning or losing in say, Animal Crossing, which goes on forever, with or without the player being involved. There are tiny win states when you pay off your loan, but those don’t end the game or anything. But what about a game you can’t win at all, like Pac-Man? You don’t “win” Pac-Man, you just go as long as possible. You do, however, lose Pac-Man. Not “can”, but “do”. You will eventually lose Pac-Man, because you can’t win. You can hit the kill screen, but that’s not a win state, it ends the game destructively, in an unintended way.

The same win/lose problems come up in playground games. You don’t win jump-rope, for example. You just go as long as possible until you lose. So at the end of the day, games by nature have to have a win or lose state. Even most playground games technically have win or loss states, because they are, by nature, multiplayer experiences, and it’s hard to have those in the real world without forcing a win in some way. So the “game” part of “video game” differs from its traditional definition. Malleable rules and non-traditional victories that don’t involve another player make up the backbone of video games. The “game” portion of the word is different than the one we based it off of. Why not come up with a new word for these kinds of games?

Merriam-Webster says that the first known use of video game was in 1973, which makes sense. That’s one year after Pong, and right when video games were hitting it big in North America. They were still simple enough that they could sort of be defined as anything. It was easy to call it a game, because that’s what it was, and it was played on a TV screen, so video. There. But there’s a weird issue here, both words come from other mediums. Video referred to video screens, like computer monitors and TVs, while game was referring to the fact that, at the time, video games were a lot like games that already existed. Pong was ping-pong, everyone knows what ping-pong is.

 Game. Or not. It's up to you.

Game. Or not. It's up to you.

It’s actually a lot like movies. The word “movie” comes from “moving picture”, which means movies are just a series of images flashed before your eyes. Kind of demeans the experience right? Aren’t movies supposed to be about combination of the acting, the music, the directing, the cinematography and everything else? I mean, if movies are moving pictures, then are .gifs movies? Are viewmaster reels? Movies are also called films, but that just refers to the thin layer of chemicals spread on photographic plates for developing film reels. Defining a medium by its physical presence isn’t the worst idea in the world, but it does offer some issues when it comes to video games, which are becoming increasingly digital, and began life as discs and cartridges. Can we just call an NES game a ROM? Is that the same as calling a movie a film? I don’t really have the answer, but common sense says we don’t because no one else does.

The best way I personally have to define a video game is by saying that it’s interactive entertainment. You watch movies, you look at art, you listen to music, but you play games. That verb distinction is important to me. It changes how I experience the medium, how I ingest it. You look at art, because it does not move. You watch a movie, because you have to observe the motion. You listen to music, because you use your ears. You play a game, because your actions have influence over the experience. That’s the distinction, and that’s the definition I like. The win or loss matters only when you start dissecting the “game” part of the word, and that's for another time.

It’s hard to be mad that we use a word. We’ve been calling them video games since the ‘70s, and we won’t really stop anytime soon. Video game rolls off the tongue a lot better than “interactive entertainment”. And it’s truly incredible that we’ve come to the point where calling something a “game” defaults to a video game, rather than a board, card, or playground game. I’m not looking to change the way we write the word out, it’d be silly to. This isn’t a crusade, I just prefer videogame over video game. As a proper noun, the word has a transformative power that pushes it just a little further from its two parent words.

 This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

This is the first google image result for "video game". Seriously.

Sure, it’ll always be stuck there, since most video games are still games in the traditional sense, and almost all have some visual element. That’s why keeping that parent word DNA at the fore is still important. I don’t think the word even separates the conversation. Personally, I don’t want to let games that are less visual, or less game-y get brushed off as “not a video game”, but honestly? That doesn't happen that often. I think I just want to combine the two words, make them inseparable, as their own concept. A proper noun that shows that these aren’t like two other mediums. That video games aren’t a combination of video and game, but something greater. They can’t be viewed in the same lens as movies, nor like traditional games. They’re inherently comparable, but that’s because they’ve evolved from them. They’re something bigger than video games They’re videogames.

And also, I’m pretentious. But that’s a given.

 

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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

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Law and Gaming- The Saga of Ralph Baer

Video games are like pornography, we know it when we see it.

It’s sort of a troublesome statement, but you can appreciate the idea behind it. Porn is hard to define, especially from a legal perspective. Erotic imagery isn’t necessarily erotic to everyone, and anything may be more erotic to some than others. A bare breast shown without the intent of titilating might not be porgnographic to say, some of the readers of the New York Times, but others were offended that children were seeing that kind of image.

But porn still has a working legal definition, and one that’s pretty easy to follow. Any image with the intent of titillation is pornographic. Law doesn’t often take things on a case by case basis unless it’s important. Blanket laws are laid down early to catch most instances of a problem, and if something makes it up to the supreme court, the case can be taken on its own merits.

So why not try to define video games from a legal perspective? After all, we definitely have a whole bunch of cases and decisions to draw from.

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Ralph Baer is a guy responsible for a lot of things. He claims to have been responsible for all video games ever. He is definitely responsible for the Magnavox Odyssey, the first ever reprogrammable game system. He’s also responsible for launching dozens of patent suits against video game companies and developers based on the fact that he believes he owns the patent for video games.

In 1966 Baer, an engineer who worked for Sanders Associates on defense contracts, got the idea to make a game that could be played on a television. Eventually, his ideas led to a patent on an “apparatus for generating symbols upon the screen of a television receiver to be manipulated by at least one participant.” Basically, Baer and his company patented video games, if you want to define them as “things you control on a raster monitor”.

There were sub-claims in the patent, specifically the idea that there needed to be a hitting symbol (the player) and a hit symbol (a ball) moving both vertically and horizontally. So while Baer did patent video games, he defined them all as ping pong. He also defined video games as anything you do on a screen that you control. No win state, no lose state; he wasn’t worried about the “game” so much as he was about the “video”, which is a surprisingly forward thinking move for an industry that would soon be made up entirely of Pong clones.

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Times were tough, and Sanders wasn’t in a position to turn the patent into a product, so they licensed it out to Magnavox, a TV company. Along with Baer, Magnavox created the Odyssey, a game system with different cartridges that could be swapped out to play simple games, including a now infamous tennis game.

 Isn't that Pong?

Isn't that Pong?

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell played Tennis on the Odyssey at a demo event, and went back to his then-new company Atari, and told one of his employees, Al Alcorn, to make a better version of it. Eventually, that game became Pong, and catapulted Atari to the top of the burgeoning video game industry.

Three years later, after Baer prodded Magnavox to take action against Atari, they sued, claiming that Atari’s Pong was a direct ripoff of Odyssey Tennis. They won, of course, considering that Baer had a guest book from the event signed by Bushnell, who later admitted that he was, in fact, inspired by the Odyssey. Atari and Magnavox settled out of court, and let Atari retroactively sublicense the patent for “video games”.

 Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

Isn't that Odyssey Tennis?

But that wasn’t the end of Baer’s lawsuit career. He spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s on the stand as a fact witness and consultant claiming that all video games technically belonged to him and Magnavox, as he was the “father of video games”.

In 1985, he (along with Sanders and Magnavox) sued Activision, as they didn’t obtain a license to produce Atari VCS games from Magnavox. Activision first brought forward nine pieces of prior art that disproved the validity of Baer’s patent. All of these pieces had already been brought forward in two lawsuits Baer had filed between the Atari and Activision cases, so Activision moved to claim that their games were different because they had more complicated circuitry that the patent didn’t cover. Even though Activisions games didn’t even resemble anything on the Odyssey, the judge ruled in favour of Magnavox, forcing Activision to pay out over a million dollars and obtain a royalty license from Magnavox.

 Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Uh, let's zoom in on the screen there.

Over the next few years Baer would end up in court with companies like Coleco, Mattel and Nintendo. All were either sued for not licensing, or attempted to prove that Baer’s claim was illegitimate. Nintendo’s lawyers dug up Tennis for Two, a game made in 1958 by William Higinbotham, a physicist who created the ignition system for the atomic bomb. Higinbotham worked for the Brookhaven National Library at the time, and put the game together for an exhibit funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to get visitors excited about atomic power. Tennis for Two was almost exactly like the Odyssey’s tennis game and Pong, but played on an oscilloscope, a device used for measuring voltages.

The courts didn’t side with Nintendo, who had to keep paying licensing royalties to Magnavox and Sanders. According to Baer recollection of his own testimony, there are a few reasons that Higinbotham’s game doesn’t count. In an interview with game historian David Winter, Baer says that “to qualify as a video game, you have to have to pass one major test: Can you play the game on a standard home TV set or a TV monitor ?”

 Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Much better. You can even sort of make out the tennis!

Basically, Tennis for Two isn’t the first video game, or even a video game at all, because it was only available for a limited time, on specialized hardware, and never made commercially available to the public. Remember, Baer says that in order to be a video game, it must be played on a standard TV or monitor. Even though Tennis for Two, Tennis and Pong are virtually indistinguishable, because the oscilloscope demo was taken down after a while, and was not made available for play on a standard TV, it doesn’t count. Though, the only difference between Tennis for Two and say, Tennis is that one is played on a TV and one isn’t. Kind of a silly distinction huh?

There were other video games that existed before the Odyssey. Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann created the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device in 1958, which played a simple missile simulator using analog controls and screen overlays. In 1951, the British company Ferranti built the Nimrod computer, which used a panel of light bulbs in order to play a strategy game called Nim. Spacewar, which is often cited as the first proper video game, was made in 1961, by students at MIT working on a PDP-1 mini-computer.

 A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

A screenshot of Spacewar, or: The Case for Capture Devices

As far as the internet can tell, the patent has lapsed, and no one pays Magnavox, Sanders or Baer anymore for making video games. But if you want to be strictly legal about it, a video game is  anything happening on a screen that you control. If you want to be like Baer and get stingy about it, you have to make it commercially available and playable on someone’s actual screen, otherwise it’s not a video game, it’s just a nuisance that prevents someone from calling him the inventor of video games. And to be fair, Baer is incredibly important to the history of video games. He even invented the concept of home video games, making him the great-great-grandfather of the PS4 and Xbox One. But his definition of games that was legally enforced for years is a little problematic. The part about interactivity is forward thinking and all, but the part about raster monitors and commercial availability seems like it mostly served to keep Baer in royalty checks. The definition might not be valid anymore, and Baer might be important, but let’s try not to stick too close to his definition. After all, I’m pretty sure not every game is secretly tennis.  

 

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The Primer- Games on Games

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The Primer- Games on Games

[The Primer is a new monthly feature  meant to tie in with our monthly theme question. Every month, we’ll put together a short list of games related to the theme question that we think are worth your time. Hopefully, you will too.]

“What is a video game” is a pretty big question. It’s open ended, and has a lot of answers. So we want to give a little bit of a reference point. Some games you can anchor yourself to as we think about why we define games, and what those definitions mean. Some of them are rooted in “gaminess” while some are about expanding what you might consider to be a game. Either way, here a few games you might want to check out.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf:

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Animal Crossing is one of the first games that comes to mind when people talk about open-ended game experiences. It’s technically open world, in that no part of your tiny town is blocked off from you, and it never pushes any goals on to you. But unlike most open world games, there’s no clear “end” to Animal Crossing. There’s no win or lose condition that ends the game, or any clear-cut way to progress. If you decide progressing means getting all of the villager pictures, that’s your prerogative, the game doesn’t mind at all.

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Like most sandbox games, Animal Crossing asks you to make your own fun, for the most part. But unlike the Grand Theft Autos and Saint’s Rows of the world, there are no missions, no bosses, no clear ways of measuring your progress in the world. You don’t get better, you don’t get further, you just continue existing in your tiny village. It’s distinctly un-gamey. Nintendo actually coined a term to describe Animal Crossing and its ilk: “non-game”. At the 2005 Game Developer’s Conference keynote, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata called titles like Brain Age and Nintendogs non-games because of their lack of “a winner, or even a real conclusion.” And even though Animal Crossing: New Leaf, the newest entry to the series, adds dozens of new tasks to do in your town, the core of the game remains the same. Choose how you want to measure your progression, or don’t. Just hang out for a while, no one’s going to stop you.

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Johann Sebastian Joust:

 (Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Including JS Joust on this list is double cheating, in that it’s neither a video game, nor is it even available to purchase as of writing. It’s played with PlayStation Move controllers linked to a computer playing selections from Bach’s concertos at different speeds. When the song is slow, the controller is very sensitive to slight movements, but when the music gets faster, you can move around more. The goal is to force the opponent to move their controller too much, causing the light on top to turn off.

But it’s not a “video game”, mostly because it doesn’t really have a “video” component. It may be played with game controllers, but even the developers, Die Gute Fabrik, call it a “no-graphics, digitally-enabled playground game.” It’s a game in the purest sense. Simple rules with clear winners and losers, and entirely free-form outside of that. Nothing in the rules says you can’t throw your shoes at other people, for example. JS Joust might not be a video game, but it does open the floor for discussion of more “digitally-enhanced” games, which, when you think about augmented reality games becoming more and more popular on iOS and Android devices, might soon become a much more crowded field than ever before.

 (Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

(Photo from the Johann Sebastian Joust press kit.)

Noby Noby Boy:

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Noby Noby Boy is...weird. It comes from the mind of Keita Takahashi, the creator of the cult-hit Katamari Damacy, which might explain some of its oddness. You play as Boy, a snake-like creature that gets longer as it eats things using either of his two mouths One’s on his face, one’s on his butt. And that’s pretty much it. You eat everyone and everything on a map, and grow longer and longer and longer, until Boy becomes an enormous, unwieldy snake monster, incapable of moving without bumping into one of his own colourful segments.

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Oh, there is one thing though. Boy gets bigger so he can give his length to Girl, a much larger snake monster hanging out on top of planet Earth. As she grows longer, she can reach other planets, unlocking more content for Boy to explore. Since Boy can’t do it alone, every single Noby Noby Boy player in the world contributes to Girl’s growth, and also reaps the rewards when she reaches a new planet. There are no personal goals, nor is there really any win or loss, like a traditional game, but there’s definitely progression, in a strange, totally impersonal way, where rewards are global, rather than individual. Noby Noby Boy isn’t an MMO, but hundreds of players were, for a time, all contributing to the same goal, without much of an end in sight. It’s strange, but it’s hard not to like a game where you can eat your own butt.

WarioWare, inc.: Mega Microgame$:

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If Animal Crossing is Nintendo’s poster-child for non-games, then WarioWare is the exact opposite. Playing WarioWare is basically playing “video games” in their purest form. Simple, five second affairs, with only one button, a directional pad, and a single command. Beat one, move on to the next. One second you’re shooting ducks in Duck Hunt, the next you’re being asked to choose the “praise” option from a menu. WarioWare takes for granted the idea that the player is experienced enough with the grammar of games that they’re able to figure out what do with one word and limited input.

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When the game presents you with a top down view of a girl with a gardening can and a plant, then commands you to “water!”, someone familiar with games would understand immediately that the top-down view means the girl is controlled with the d-pad, and the plant, as the only other sprite on screen is the target. WarioWare puts you through the ringer of platformers, RPGs, shooters, matching games, every kind of genre that’s playable in 5 seconds with one button and directional controls. It’s pure video game.

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At the same time, the games are incredibly short, and packed together tightly. While they constantly reference video games and gaming history, some people would hesitate to call them “video games” on their own. They’re microgames, sure, but they’re also distillations of video game in the simplest sense of the word. Like a reduction of the medium, they get rid of anything not explicitly required for a video game. Separated into its base elements, it’s a series of incredibly simple tasks without much in the way of reward other than more microgames, but taken as a gestalt, WarioWare throws game after game at you, asking you to use your familiarity with various genres and gaming history to keep on your toes. If nothing else, WarioWare is the gamiest game that’s ever gamed.


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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

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Win or Lose, it's Just a Game: An Exploration of Winning, Losing and Progressing

Wining and losing is sort of important to us as a society.

As kids, we’re trained to want to win by pretty much everything we do. Sports and playground games come to mind, but even school teaches us that education can be “failed” and comparing marks to your peers quickly teaches you that you can be better than other people. Whether that’s warranted or not is irrelevant, what matters is that we’re trained to see winning and losing in everyday interactions.

That social gamification can be scary at times. Take a look at self-proclaimed pick-up artists, who see interactions with women as an elaborate game that they try to enter with the the upper hand. Their core gameplay mechanic is trickery, their tools are cruel psychological tricks like negging and hypnosis, and their win condition is sex. It’s gross, but it’s not a logical leap when you’re viewing social interactions like a game. If you think you can win or lose talking to another human being, then you’ll probably end up trying to get the upper hand in whatever way possible.

 Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Ubiquitous. Annoying. Game mechanic?

Essentially, the seduction community is applying the concept of gamification to meeting women. Gamification was a tech-industry buzzword a few years ago, it’s the idea of applying game-like trappings to something that isn’t really a game. Foursquare turned going to the store into a score-based game. You got points for going to work, so long as you made sure to check in every day. There are more sinister applications of gamification, even within the mostly innocuous Foursquare. In 2010 Starbucks gave unique badges and discounts to Foursquare users who checked in at more than one location or became the mayor of their local store. Essentially, they were  encouraging people to go to Starbucks more often (and likely buy things there) for the sake of getting more points.

Of course, gamification can be used for good too. The popular exercise app Fitocracy gives points and achievements for better workouts and reaching fitness milestones. The interesting thing is though, whether used for good or evil, gamification remains popular. More and more non-game apps on iOS and Android devices are incorporating scoring systems and achievements- things we’ve commonly associated with games. People enjoy being rewarded for what would otherwise be mundane tasks. People like having their progress tracked, they like competing against other people in those mundane tasks.

So why does this matter to video games?

Well, in a way, gamification couldn’t really exist without video games laying the groundwork. Points may come from sports, but the idea of racking up points on your own and checking a leaderboard to see if you’ve bested anyone is a distinctly arcade-like experience. It makes more sense for the average person too. They aren’t actively competing against a particular person, like in football or hockey, they’re passively competing against anyone using the same service as they are, like the high score screen in Pac-Man.

 Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Fun fact: It's hard to find a hi-res version of the Pac-Man high-score screen. Enjoy King of the Monsters for the Neo Geo's instead.

Video games provided the first opportunity for a single player to feel like they’d defeated someone else without that person being there, or even existing. Arcade games had high score boards, and home games had you beating the computer. Even when there wasn’t a player two for you to beat, the computer would always make a worthy opponent, even if it was playing a very different game. Outside of fighting, racing and sports games, where you and your opponent are on the same general playing field, the computer’s job isn’t to compete against you, it’s to get in your way. Your job as the player was to best it. Because we always want to win, even when there’s no real person to beat.

So people like to win. More specifically, they prefer not to win just because they didn’t lose. They want to win because someone else lost. People are competitive by nature in that way, and gamified apps and services prey on that desire to beat someone else. Not that that’s necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s unlikely that anyone’s feelings are being hurt when they lose their position as Mayor of Dairy Queen in Foursquare, and certainly no one is being physically harmed. And in the case of apps like Fitocracy, there’s nothing wrong at all with urging people to be more healthy, and if it takes handing out points and level ups, then so be it.

 I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

I'm a level 20 bench-presser. At level 21, I'll learn fire-3 and gain the ability to lift Chimeras.

But most people don’t win. Ever. They do keep playing though, simply to see the numbers go up and the rewards flow in. The promise of winning is important as a far off goal, but even though social multiplayer is baked in to most gamified apps, people are mostly content with seeing their progress tracked and advanced. Fitocracy isn’t about being healthier than anyone else, it’s about gaining points towards level ups, and going on quests, terms that come from role playing games. It’s a vicious cycle, sure. You do the activity and gain points, then you do it more to gain more points, because getting points feels good. Getting rewarded feels good. You haven’t necessarily won, but you’ve definitely progressed in some way.

If you bring that urge to feel rewarded back into video games, you can shed some light on why winning and losing is usually tied to the defining them. Winning and losing is our most basic way of tracking progress. It’s hard to quantify if you’ve gotten better at something without a goal post, especially abstract things like intelligence, fitness or problem solving. More often than not, that goal post is another human being, maybe because they’re trying to prove the same thing you are, maybe because you get to kill two birds with one stone. You get to feel like you’ve progressed, you get to feel like you’ve defeated someone, two things that have always felt good.  

But video games, and by extension gamified apps, let you track your progress without another person involved. Once again, the computer acts as the person you beat. Except, it isn’t actively competing against you, it’s merely reflecting the old you tracking your progress over that. Foursquare tracks how often you’ve visited somewhere and rewards you when you do it more than before. Fitocracy tracks how much you’ve exercised and how much better you’ve gotten since you started using it. Neither of these have end goals, merely rewards for progression.

So what if we took away the concept of winning? Just keep setting new goals every time the last one was reached, always rewarding the player and promising another reward down the road. There isn’t too much difference between that and what gamified apps do. Do we even need winning or losing anymore? Is the skinner box rewarding you for small steps without and end in sight enough?

 Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

Foursquare's badges are rewards, but not victory. Earnings, but not wins. Pretty, but ultimately pointless.

 GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

GTA V's open world is full of ways to progress, but ultimately, you never really have to "win". In fact, most people never bother winning.

Games are often defined as needing win or loss states. Of course, what victory or defeat means varies from game to game, but the idea that there’s a player initiated “end” is a key aspect of games, from board games to sports. But more and more, we see games without a traditional ending. Open world and massively multiplayer online games tend not to have an end goal so much as they have various goals you’re always working towards, and more often than not, those goal posts get stretched further back after a while. Winning is promised, but it’s an afterthought. But the games never stop tracking your progress. Your levels, what collectibles you’ve found, how much of the map you've explored, what you’ve crafted, how long you’ve played, dozens and dozens of numbers going up that the computer tells you make you better than you were before.

Whether you consider that a win or not is up to you as a player. You can decide if hitting the level cap and doing every raid in World of Warcraft is winning. The game tracks the progress, you set the goal. Small, personal victories seem to matter more than one grand triumph over an opponent. Judging by how gamification is slowly taking over day-to-day life, people like being tracked and rewarded, that’s game enough for them. Winning might just be the delicious cherry on top.

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What is a Video Game? - An Introduction

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What is a Video Game? - An Introduction

Here at Built to Play, we want to ask the kinds of questions that can help us better understand our burgeoning medium.

In just a few decades, video games have become one of the largest entertainment industries in the world, up there with music and movies. Video games are being consumed by millions every day, but the kind of criticism and deeper thought that other creative industries see regularly are rare in the gaming space.

Luckily, that sort of criticism is becoming more and more common, and we want to join that discourse. We want to ask big questions, and give as many answers as we can. We want to think, along with you, about what video games are, what they can be, and what they can do.

So that’s why we’re starting our new theme months. At the beginning of each month, we’re going to ask a question. A big, wide reaching question, most likely with multiple answers. And then we’ll try to present as many answers as we can. We want to offer as many answers from as many perspectives as possible. We want to be inclusive, we want to be part of a larger discourse, and that means never ignoring anyone’s ideas.

On your end, that's going to mean at least one article a week about the theme, exploring it some way. We'll have some new, more regular features along the way, and we'll still be peppering the site with more news-y features like we've been doing up until now, along with regular reviews. 

So to kick us off, we want to start with what might be the medium’s biggest question, but also the simplest.

What is a video game, and why does it matter?

What is a game? How can we define it? Can we define it at all? Is a definition important? What does it matter what we call it? Does the history of the medium matter to our understanding of it? Does it even matter how we define it at all?

Like we mentioned earlier, video games are still young, very young, and in this early state, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what a video game is. The communities growing around them occasionally bring up the question, but it always serves to distance people from each other. The debate rages in circles forever. Far be it from us to demand a stop to it, but we also don’t want to define videogames ourselves. We want to take all possible definitions in turn,and talk about them. Where they came from, what they mean for the medium, and how they can bring us closer together. We believe that everyone who plays games of any kind, can get together and discuss what they love, without worrying about how they define them.

By the end of the month, we hope to provide an exhaustive exploration of these questions and more. We want to spark discussion, we want to ask the big questions, and we want to try our best to provide the big answers.

We hope you’ll come along with us for the ride.

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

For years, most conversations about Zelda games have been dominated by talk about the Zelda formula: a set of structural rules that the games have slavishly stuck to since 1991’s A Link to the Past. A Link Between Worlds promised early on that it was going to change all that. In Japan, it’s called A Link to the Past 2. It’s making a pretty clear statement that this is the next step for Zelda.

Well, two steps forward and one step back, but you know- a step nonetheless.

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Let’s start with the steps forward, since the rest doesn’t quite make sense without them. Pre-release info has made a big deal of the game’s item rental system. Instead of getting each item in its own dungeon, Link instead has access to almost every major item after the first dungeon. A shopkeeper sets up in Link’s bedroom and lets him rent bombs, the bow, a boomerang, a whole stable of Zelda staples. You keep these items until you die, unless you buy them for a high price, but purchased items can also be upgraded though a surprisingly deep and enjoyable side quest. If you play smart though, you could probably get through the entire game on just one rental. The loss of items and rupee requirement to getting them back adds some actual tension to boss fights, since death leads to more than just losing your last five minutes.

 Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Unfortunately, the game’s bosses aren’t quite up to snuff for the most part, but 2D Zelda games aren’t really combat-focused games, they’re about the puzzles. LBW adds two tools to Link’s repertoire in that regard. The first is his newfound ability to merge into walls. It basically amounts to being able to sidle along any wall, but it does make a bigger deal than you’d expect it to. Finding secrets hidden around walls you didn't expect to be able to traverse is very satisfying. Like how Portal managed to teach me to “think with portals”, I eventually started looking at every wall and trying to figure out if something was hidden around the other side.

The other new trick is the addition of height to dungeon layouts. Rendering the game in polygons let the designers go hog wild with multi-layer dungeons, height puzzles and just overall deeper, more interesting puzzle design. A third axis really does help for making puzzles more than “light two torches, chest appears.” Of course, that puzzle still shows up, but it disappears early on to make way for sand manipulation, ice-seesaws and other more interesting mechanics.

 Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

The trade-off for height, however, is the fact that everything looks sort of ugly. LttP has a very unique look, with muted colours and simple shading used to create the illusion of detail where there was none. It’s not a mind-blowing effect, but when you look at a random screenshot of LttP, you instantly know what game it’s from. LBW tries to replicate that effect, but it comes off looking cheap. Characters don’t quite have the same pop, even if they do look ostensibly identical, and in some areas, everything just comes out looking like RPG Maker clip art. It’s not good.

And unfortunately, it invites comparison, because both Hyrule and its mirror counterpart Lowrule (this game’s version of the traditional Zelda Dark World) are ripped straight out of LttP. It’s an almost pixel for pixel recreation, with some slight changes here and there. If you’ve played LttP, you’ve been to this Hyrule before. From the field of pillars near Link’s house to Thieves’ Town, everything is more or less how you remember it, but rendered in plasticky polygons. Like the graphics, it feels cheap, especially from a team that’s proven they can do better many times before.

 They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

 Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

But, in another step forward, the world is totally open. Since every item is accessible to you from close to the start, the world is completely traversable, save for a few areas that need optional items you’ll get from exploring to open up. All this means you can tackle most of the dungeons in whatever order you please. After the first dungeon, you tackle one of two dungeons before the other, and after those, seven more dungeons open up to be explored in any order. I even found myself getting halfway through one dungeon, finding myself stuck, and then warping out to check out another one. The game’s pace is totally up to you. You can explore for hours before setting foot in a dungeon, or you can take them on one after another in rapid succession, ignoring side quests. It’s perfectly suited for a handheld game and a welcome relief from Twilight Princess’ slow build up between dungeons, and Skyward’s Sword’s movie-length tutorial sequence.

All the non-linearity, clever puzzles and occasional multiple solutions led me to feel something I haven’t felt from a Zelda game in a while: accomplished. It’s satisfying to get somewhere you feel like you shouldn’t be yet, and still triumphing through smart play. Dungeons don’t ramp up in difficulty but focus on more and more devious puzzles for the item they focus on.  It’s just unfortunate that such a huge step forward had to be coupled alongside such a massive step back.  Reusing the overworld really hurts the game more than I expected it to. Every dungeon occupies the same spot on the map; the insides are just different, same with every house, cave and lake. Exploration is promoted, and while there are new secrets to discover, I can’t help but feel I’ve done all this before.

 For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

It’s funny, “I’ve done this all before” is probably the number one complaint about Zelda games since 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Every game since LttP has just recreated its structure with slight modifications. Finally, there’s a game that actually shakes up the formula, but it feels same-y for a completely different reason, and it still holds it back.

There were moments when LBW reminded me of expertly game mods. Like Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Project M, or Half Life’s Counter Strike, LBW radically changes certain things about the game it originated from and freshens up that experience, but it’s still being built on that foundation, and you can’t change the underpinnings.

The changes it does make are great. The game is fantastically fun, doesn’t hold your hand and is clever throughout. But all of that is at odds with the reused overworld and cheap-looking graphics. It’s one of those odd games that does so much right, but fails to seal the deal the way it should. If only the game sprung for a new overworld, to really reward the exploration it encourages with something new and exciting, it would be the best Zelda game in years. And if you've never played or aren't super familiar with LttP, it might be. But for the Zelda diehard, it seems to be comfortable simply being good, never quite escaping the shadow of its predecessor.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Platform: 3DS

Developer: Nintendo EAD & Monolith Soft

Publisher: Nintendo

 You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

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Papers, Please. Papers, Please. Papers, Please.

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Papers, Please. Papers, Please. Papers, Please.

Papers Please.

A man comes to my desk, pudgy, short and desperate. It’s cold enough to freeze migrating birds midway through a flap of their wings, but he’s sweating. Bad sign. He gives me his passport, and his work permit, and to my surprise everything is in order. Approved. Stamp. Close. Toss.

As I hand them back, he starts to beg. He wants me to let his wife through, no matter what. They’re in danger, and a family should be together. I knew there was something else.

His wife is next. She doesn't have the right documentation. I shake my head and plant the DENIED stamp on her passport.  I have two warnings already this day. One more and I lose pay. I already can hardly pay for the heat in my home, and I’ve run out of savings. She disappears into the rejection line.

Papers Please.  

 

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This game is a job. Better put, it’s a highly refined disempowerment game, the exact opposite of a world-hopping military squad or the fantasy universe chosen one. At the best of times, I feel petty and small. At the worst, I’m snivelling and lash out at those nearest to me. And I loved it.

The game provides you will constant reminders of your insignificance. The communist republic of Arstotzka recently ended a war against Kolechia. The terrorists attempt to bomb Arstotzka to regain their rightful land. But this has nothing to do with you. Neither do the political games behind the daily headlines, which affect the game’s rules but rarely go beyond adding or removing challenge to the grind. The game affects a looming sense of dread that every decision could be the wrong one, and even the right ones could turn around and bite you.

Papers Please provides numerous workplace hazards. Not the terrorists, who blow themselves up on the other side of the street. That’s within my control. If I focus, I can keep their number down. And let’s be pragmatic. They blow themselves up once they’re crossed, not at the actual crossing. They can’t hurt me. The hazards come in form of the government and resistance. I have bribes to pay and I have bribes to take, all of which determines my allegiance. But who has time for politics when my wife is at home, sick and my children are hungry? I wish they would leave me alone. I have people to process. My job was desperate enough without these hawkish factions.

It’s ironic that in my attempt to sympathise with the border guard role, I grew detached from all the other characters. Occasionally, I despise visitors more, like the wife-beating football player and so I refuse them entry. But rarely do I feel like I have to let someone inside. When people tell me that they lost your papers or that they didn’t know the day’s rules, it’s easy. I reject you, or I get you arrested, depending on what my bosses are pressuring me to do. At the end of the day, I’ll do whatever’s needed so long as I don’t unexpectedly hear the tick-tok-tapping of the teletype machine.

In a way, I have a real power, to allow people the opportunity to work or start a new life. Yet, it’s not gratifying to let people through. People rarely thank you, and the game seems far more focused on just letting your survive than ever thriving - at least in my playthrough. Perhaps others were much better at their job than I was. More often I use my power to lash out, like a petulant child, intent on making sure others are having a just as a bad day as I am. There was a man who came to the border repeatedly with fake ID, not understanding the rules, and eventually I just rejected him even when he had the right documents. I received a warning immediately. I felt terrible, but not for long.

Part of the issue is that Papers Please gives you twisted rewards, like confirmation that your wife won’t die from disease, or that your children aren’t starving. There are no gold stars for trying hard. Purchasing upgrades to my work space feels useless, especially when my next day could be an utter failure, and I’ll have to dig into my savings.

Arrested Folks

Since I’ve spent about 600 words explaining how much misfortune I encountered in this game, why keep playing?  I had to ask myself this several times throughout the game. I’m not being paid. The gameplay is rote, and I don’t usually play games to feel like I’m doing hard work. Papers Please has a plot but it’s only a small part of the game. The reason is that ultimately, there is something engaging about misfortune. Papers Please creates strong emotions, even if they’re largely negative.  I felt hate, mistrust, fear, and frustration. And that’s incredibly valuable.

Consider this in comparison to the goal of the AAA game, our blockbusters in the industry. The Assassins Creeds, Call of Dutys and Battlefields which come out every year, and constantly try to up themselves. Better graphics. Bigger explosions. More dire plots.

Yet, these games have so constantly been trying to raise the stakes that they’re laughable in hindsight. Modern Warfare 3 has Russia invade all of Europe at once, while the main characters gallivant from one set piece to another. Each level in that game feels less valuable than the last because they’re equally dire. The world is about to blow up and yet there is no danger. A lot of that comes from the lack of character focus and the forgiving gameplay mechanics. If I died, I’d start inches from where I left off. But really, who cared if my character in that game died? They switch around so frequently that they’re impossible to distinguish. The game does an effective job of making me feel powerful. Everything explodes. I am the reckoner, and the destroyer. I felt like a hero - a hero in an incredibly boring world, where every problem was solved easily by a rifle. It was like being a child stepping on a world made of paper-mache.

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Assassins’ Creed faced a similar problem. At the end of Assassin’s Creed III the fate of the world hung in the balance, but the game was so focused on making the stakes impossibly high that it forgot to give the main character a personality. Assassins’ Creed literally gives the player godlike aspirations, but again, I don’t want to be a god in a when the world means nothing. Think about the phrase “saving the world” for a moment. A world is not a planet that happens to have people on it. The world is comprised of the people I love and care about, and they all happen to live on Earth. Saving the world in Assassin’s Creed felt like I had saved a lump of molten rock instead of a place that held billions of people.

When I finished Papers Please, in one sense, it felt like I saved the world. I didn’t manage to change much. I wasn’t even promoted for my efforts. My family survived though. So when the time came to stop playing Papers Please, I felt elated.

The family members have zero characterization, but because of the crushing depression of the gameplay, I was forced to imagine them. I don’t think everyone had the same reaction as me, but they could get sick and they needed food. In some sense these requirements meant I had to figure out why they needed food and why they would want heat. By a week into the game, I didn’t want my kids to die. Not just because the game would end, but because I didn’t like this platonic idea of starving children to die.

I’m never going to replay Papers Please. It’s too depressing. I had my experience with it, and I didn’t have fun - which is exactly the experience I was looking for. Papers Please creates a world that was both fascinating and distressing, and in some sense is comparable to one’s own life. As much as we’d like to imagine that our life consists of great moments - the birth of your first child, winning the hockey game, getting promoted - most of it is the rote repetition of the grind. And if that’s the world Papers Please was looking to emulate it did a horrifically good job.

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Xbox One Launch Line Up Preview- Quick Hits

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Xbox One Launch Line Up Preview- Quick Hits

Microsoft has opened up an Xbox One pop-up shop in Toronto ahead of the system’s launch. On Tuesday, Microsoft allowed members of the press to run around the shop and check out demos of upcoming Xbox One games. Here are some short previews on a few of the games available to demo at the pop-up shop, which opens to the public on Thursday, November 7. It'll stay open until December 27, with all the games previewed here, along with a few more.

Crimson Dragon:

 Like Panzer Dragoon, but with even  more  dragons.

Like Panzer Dragoon, but with even more dragons.

The formerly Kinect exclusive, Xbox 360 successor to Panzer Dragoon has been freed of its motion control shackles. Or maybe it’s been shackled to a controller? Either way, the game plays pretty much like Panzer Dragoon, or, if you weren’t one of the five people who owned a Sega Saturn, like Star Fox.

It’s an on-rails shooter, where you ride on the back of a dragon, shooting lasers, fireballs and windblasts at other dragons and alien fauna. The game has a weird sci-fi fantasy thing going for it, with the dragons as the aliens that rule planet Draco, which humans want to colonize. They’re being infected by a disease that makes them go crazy, everybody wears standard space-marine armor, but occasionally there will be another soldier with an anime haircut instead of a helmet. It’s an odd balance, but it works, making for a cool visual style that hides the fact that the game started its life on 360, and it sometimes shows.

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Some bosses take you into a free-flight mode, which functions pretty much like all-range mode in Star Fox. You fly around a giant boss, looking for weak points to shoot at as your wingmen help out. Wingmen can also be the AI profiles of people on your friends list you’ve summoned to help out, so no more blaming Slippy for messing up your run.

Crimson Dragon is a digital-only launch title for Xbox One, from Microsoft Studios.

 It will forever drive me mad that the "Multiplizer" is not called the "Multiprizer" IT MAKES MORE SENSE.

It will forever drive me mad that the "Multiplizer" is not called the "Multiprizer" IT MAKES MORE SENSE.

Peggle 2:

Peggle is Peggle and will always be Peggle. You fire a ball at some pegs, watch it bounce around, get points, and become hopelessly addicted. Peggle 2 delivers on all those counts, and actually manages to add some freshness to the mix. The wider screen allows for more space for your Peggle Master (a helper character that gives you magic powers) to hang out in the corner, and get some extra animations. The new Yeti master, Berg, shakes his butt when you do really well, complete with pixelated censoring.

Another new addition are bumpers which line some boards, bouncing your ball around. It’s small, but it adds a little dynamism to the few stages I saw them in. The additions, which also include 5 new masters, sound small, mostly because they actually are. But Peggle was already great, and I can’t wait to become addicted all over again.

Forza 5:

 Forza or Fortza? The eternal question...

Forza or Fortza? The eternal question...

I have to be honest, I’m not a car game guy. My primary racing game experience is with Sonic and All Stars Racing Transformed and various Mario Karts. The last “real” racing game I played was Gran Turismo 2 on PlayStation. Nevertheless, I braved Forza 5 and found that...it’s a racing game.

It’s a really pretty racing game, absolutely gorgeous in fact, but as usual, I didn’t quite feel the appeal. The demo featured a rewind function that pulled me back to an earlier point in the race, which helped the one time I crashed, spun out, and went from second place to eighth, but I imagine that it isn’t a commonly used ability in regular gameplay.

What I took away from Forza 5 was its use of the Xbox One’s impulse triggers. When I pressed the brakes while driving, the triggers would rumble more and more the harder I pressed and there was always some slight rumble to the triggers as I held down the gas. It felt visceral, in a non-violent way, though I can’t imagine any other context in which rumbling triggers would make any sense.

Killer Instinct:

 Werewolves can be stopped by two things: A silver bullet, and a swift kick to the jaw.

Werewolves can be stopped by two things: A silver bullet, and a swift kick to the jaw.

Fighting games are notoriously hard to demo. A fighting game is usually judged on how tough it is to figer out, how complicated it is to master, what the balance is like, and how deep the bonus modes go, and a short, 5 minute session isn’t really going to tell you any of that.

Killer Instinct was no different, but my 5 minutes were at the very least better than I expected. KI is an update of Rare’s SNES “classic”, which is mostly considered to be just another poor Mortal Kombat clone these days. The new Killer Instinct takes some pages out of the new Mortal Kombat’s book as well, with long juggle combos and a very “X-Treme” attitude. Specifically, an announcer who never shuts up and always sounds like he just smoked a pack of cigarettes in hell.

The game itself is hard to judge for now. Combos seemed fairly easy to do, but so did the combo breakers, which essentially just rewarded random button mashing during the match. But of course, that can really only be proven with more extensive play. The fact that the base version of the game is free, with all the characters running $20, and a deluxe version for $40 is a great business model, and one I hope more fighting games adopt, I just wish it wasn’t in a game I have so many apprehensions about.

Kinect Sports Rivals:

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Kinect Sports Rivals is easily the Xbox One’s prettiest launch game.

The Kinect sensor works a bit better, and you can play while sitting so you don’t look like a madman, twisting your arms and stomping your feet in front of the TV, but I still found that it didn’t quite work without making more exaggerated movements than I thought I’d need to make. That didn’t really matter though, because I was wowed, genuinely wowed, by how much prettier the game was than pretty much any next-gen title I’ve seen.

The difference from the rest of the next-gen line up is colour. Next-gen lighting effects (the real graphical jump that the Xbox One and PS4 will provide) take some of the edge off of the oversaturated primaries the game was using and leaves everything with a semi-realistic palette that still looks distinctly cartoony. The water was a vibrant blue, with amazing transparency, and I realize I sound like the world’s most cliched graphics evangelist, ranting about water effects, but they really are something great.

How much better the Kinect sensor remains to be seen, but if you’re picking up an Xbox One at launch, download the demo for this one, just so you can see that next-gen looks better when it isn’t brown and grey.

Dead Rising 3:

 Nick, and his co-op partner Dick. No seriously, that's his name, and he just hangs around silently in cutscenes. It's great.

Nick, and his co-op partner Dick. No seriously, that's his name, and he just hangs around silently in cutscenes. It's great.

Going in, I was worried that Dead Rising 3 would lack the humour and general upbeat spirit that endeared me to the series in the first place. Going out, I was more worried about the game’s world than anything else. The demo had me, as zombie-outbreak-survivor Nick, hunting for some Zombrex (the famed zombie antidote) after an inopportune bite. So off I went into town, gleefully rampaging through zombies with a steamroller-motorcycle hybrid I built on the spot. Not having to search for crafting benches both makes and breaks the series’ trademark crafting. On one hand, crafting any two items I find on the ground is fantastic. On the other, it sort of inspired me to try and combine everything, which mostly had me standing around with a cinder block in one hand, longingly staring at a shotgun wishing I could combine the two.

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The other worrying thing I noted was that the game’s open world made traversing by foot a bit of a chore, which left me using mostly vehicles to get around, and missing out on the various melee weapon combinations. It isn’t helped by the fact that the absolutely massive zombie hordes are a nightmare to plow through without a car.

On the bright side, one of the melee combinations I used was a fire spitting dragon head with umbrella wings and katana gloves, and the guy next to me was fighting off the zombie hordes in a full suit of knight’s armor while using an axe tied to a car engine. So you know, the comedy is still there.

Ryse: Son of Rome:

 Why does the guy on the right get a helmet and the other one doesn't? Seems unfair.

Why does the guy on the right get a helmet and the other one doesn't? Seems unfair.

Look, neither of us want to do this. Launch lineups are pretty much always subpar, and, just a guess here, the PS4 and Xbox One don’t seem to be exceptions. But Ryse...well, Ryse is special. First announced as a first-person action game for the Kinect, Ryse was meant to show people that the peripheral could be used for hardcore games. But Kinect was repositioned as the Wii 2.0, and the game never came out.

Until now.

Ryse has been repositioned as a hack-and-slash, God of War style action game set in ancient Rome. Of course, just like God of War, the game tends to skew towards the old ultra-violence. At one point in the demo, after slashing at my enemy maybe five or six times, then bashing his head in with my shield, he ran at me again and I was given an execution prompt. When enemies are low enough on health, you can hit RT to exectue a canned animation and, well, execute them.

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My soldier chopped his left arm off when the game told me to hit X, then it asked me to press Y. I decided I was done murdering this man. But without any orders from me, my soldier spun behind him, knocked him to the floor, sliced off his right leg and then curb stomped him back to the ground. I was pretty much done with the demo at that point, but pressed on. Eventually I found myself in a turret section, with confusing auto-lock-on that someone made it both terribly confusing and insultingly easy, and later a boss fight, which was solved by pressing X with the occasional hit of Y to stun the boss.

The game looks pretty good, better than most of the other launch titles, which are ports of current-gen games, and some scenes in the cutscenes could have passed for photos. I just wish the game could pass for more than a gratuitously violent slash-fest that plays itself. 

 

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Gaming History 101: A Trip through the Historical Software Collection

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Gaming History 101: A Trip through the Historical Software Collection

A few days ago, the Internet Archive put up a section called the Historical Software Collection, a portion of their archive dedicated to preserving old software that they’ve deemed important to the history of videogames. The games are presented accurately, running of a Javascript version of MESS (the Multi Emulator Super System), so the’re totally free and legally availble to play in your browser.

We at Built to Play wanted to give you a little sampler of five games in the collection that we feel are some of the more historically interesting ones available.

Pac- Man 2600:

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In 1981, Atari employee Todd Frye was asked to develop a version of Namco’s arcade hit, Pac-Man, for the Atari 2600. Atari figured that even though their hardware was released in 1977, and wasn’t designed to display more than three moving objects at a time, Pac-Man was simple and gameplay-focused enough that they could get away with what they assumed would be an ugly, but functional port.

They were wrong.

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Programmer Todd Frye was given about five months to make the game, which he quickly realized was almost impossible. For one thing, Pac-Man was running on arcade-level hardware that was 16 times more powerful than the 2600, and because of executives trying to get as much money out of the game as possible, Frye was told to design the game on a 4 kilobyte cartridge, rather than the larger, but more expensive, 8 KB counterpart. Frye ended up changing the game’s trademark power pellets to yellowish wafers, and drawing them, along with Pac-Man, every frame. To get around the three moving objects rule, Frye had the four ghosts flicker on a four frame rotation, with only one being visible every frame. On an old CRT monitor, the afterimage could trick someone into thinking they weren’t flickering that often, but on a modern computer monitor, the effect is headache-inducing.

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It all resulted in a game that is recognizable as Pac-Man, but not nearly as good, and certainly a disappointment to Pac-Man fans who were eagerly anticipating a home version. Atari, expecting the game to be their biggest seller ever, printed 12 million copies, about two million more games than there were sold Atari 2600’s at the time. The game sold seven million units over the course of the system’s life, a little over half of the initial estimate. Unsatisfied buyers returned the game in droves, leaving Atari with not only the 5 million left over, but hundreds of thousands more copies sitting unsold. Pac-Man is often cited as one of the games (along with E.T. the Extra Terrestrial) that led to the videogame crash of 1983, because it drove consumer confidence in Atari straight into the ground.

And no, apparently the yellowish squares aren’t Twinkies. What a gyp.

Pitfall:

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Luckily, the Collection not only features the 2600’s best selling title, but also its second best, David Crane and Activisions’s Pitfall!.

Unlike Pac-Man, it’s Pitfall’s gameplay that makes it so important. It’s often considered one of the earlier examples of the sidescrolling platformer.

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Pitfall lacks the uneven terrain of other, later platformers, but has the same multiple levels of play, sidescrolling format, and focus on avoiding hazards that would eventually become the genre’s trademarks. It’s unlikely that the true origin point for platformers, Super Mario Bros. was inspired by Pitfall, but its early use of those concepts on system that could barely handle them is interesting enough on its own.

Crane managed to get multiple moving sprites on screen at once, without any flickering, and still fit the game on a 4 KB cartridge, a feat that made Pac-Man look even worse by comparison. He also made sure the game felt completely distinct from Atari’s glut of poor arcade conversions by giving players a 20 minute time limit. Arcade games usually lasted only a few minutes, to get players to pump more quarters into the machine. By giving players 20 minutes, Crane gave the game a reason to be on a home system, and started the trend of longer game experiences for the home market.

Akalabeth:

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Akalabeth is brutal, confusing, difficult to get into and almost unplayable to people who grew up with the luxuries of modern RPGs. It’s also probably the reason that those RPGs even exist in the first place.

Richard Garriot programmed Akalabeth: World of Doom in 1979, while he was in high school. Eventually, the game found its way out of his hometown and into the hands of the California Pacific Computer Company, who offered to publish Garriot’s game, and give him 5$ for every copy sold. Three years later, Garriot would release his next game, Ultima, a spiritual sequel to Akalabeth.

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Ultima is essentially the inspiration for almost every western RPGs, and plenty of eastern ones as well. Ultima and Wizardry, another RPG released that same year, are often cited as the two games that inspired Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, which in turn inspired every other JRPG. And all these games can trace their origins back to Akalabeth.

The game is mostly a curio now, since Ultima went on to do what Akalabeth tried to do but in a more playable state, but there is some charm left on those digital bones. Nothing says dedication like turning your restart option into a prayer for revival.

Mystery House:

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In the late ‘70s, Ken Williams wanted to start up a company for Apple II software development. After poking around a catalogue, he and his wife, Roberta, found a game called Colossal Cave, which they loved. It was a text-adventure game, and when they started looking for more, they couldn’t find anything that was quite what they wanted, so they did what any reasonable person would do: they made their own.

Roberta felt like the game would work better with pictures, so Ken developed Mystery House, using 70 simple drawings she’d made for their story, which was based on Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. They sold the game in sandwich bags at local software shops, and it managed to break 10,000 copies sold, which was an unbelievable success at the time.

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A few years later, they turned their little operation into a proper company, called Sierra On-Line, and worked on cranking out more and more adventure games. Text-adventure games were already pretty popular among hobbyists, but adding pictures and graphics made the genre more accessible, opened it up to new fans, and eventually, turned adventure games into some of the most popular PC games out there.

Sierra’s later titles like King’s Quest and Space Quest, Lucasart’s classics like Maniac Mansion and the Indiana Jones games, even Myst, all owe something of their existence to Ken and Roberta Williams, and Mystery House.

As an added bonus, not only is the game historically important, it’s also one of the few games in the collection that is still kind of playable! It’s a little obtuse, but seasoned adventure gamers might be able to enjoy the spookiness regardless.

Smurf: Adventure in Gargamel’s Castle: 

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Unlike every other game on this list (and most other games in the collection), Smurf is interesting specifically because it inspired nothing.

Released in 1982, the game has you control an adjectiveless smurf on his way to rescue Smurfette. You do this by jumping, double jumping, or ducking. That’s about it. You can’t defeat enemies (of which there are only two) and your most common hazards are some weeds that will kill you if you touch them. One can only assume smurfs (smurves?) are just that into garden maintenance.

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The game can be beaten in about two or three minutes on any difficulty, it’s a bit of a joke. The interesting thing about it though, is that it was the first platformer with alternating terrain. Unlike in Pitfall, you weren’t just jumping over pits and hazards, but up and down onto ledges on different levels. It’s not any sort of major innovation, in fact, Donkey Kong did it a year earlier, but it wouldn’t be adopted back into sidescrolling platformers until the next year’s Maniac Miner, which probably didn’t draw anything from Smurf.

Smurf, like other games in the collection is mostly a curio these days, but it’s a distinctly weird curio. It’s a pretty bad game with early signs of innovation that just sort of evolved into a dead end. Uneven terrain in platformers became a “thing” with Super Mario Bros., which was in turn inspired by Donkey Kong. But Smurf did it first, for whatever it’s worth.

Also, that topless Smurfette glitch makes her gaming’s first sex symbol, in a weird way. Take THAT, Lara Croft.

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

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Pokemon X and Y- Tipping Point

Pokémon X and Y add a fascinating new feature to the series. It’s a game changing idea, one that totally changes the way I perceive the world that the game presents. It’s not the full 3D battles with a dynamic camera, it’s not the brand new fairy type, it’s not the ability to fully customize your trainer, it’s not even the fact that Pokémon names can be up to ten letters now, allowing me to nickname my Gyarados “Skullkraken”, as God and President Obama intended. 

No, the game changing feature is tipping: the ability to tip buskers, waters, and any number of NPCs who offer you small services.

Stay with me here, I promise it’ll start making sense in a moment.

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Occasionally in Pokémon X and Y, you’ll come across a wandering minster who will offer to sing you a song, or you enter a café and a waiter seats you. Maybe you just asked a maid to assist you in sending out a battle request, or found a poor Pokémon with a sign around its neck saying it needs money for a trim. After interacting with them, the game will ask if you’d like to top them, in denominations of either 100 pokédollars, 500 pokédollars, or 1000 pokédollars. Assuming that’s equivalent to Yen, we’re looking at a $1 tip, a $5 tip, or a $10 tip.

Here’s the kicker though, tipping doesn’t do anything.

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It doesn’t increase your stats, no one mentions it, and all that happens is that you’re out a couple of bucks for what would have otherwise been a free service. It’s weird in a videogame context. Mechanically speaking, videogames tend not to have wasted parts. Everything means something, otherwise a developer spent hours slaving away on something players would find pointless, when they could otherwise spend their time working on things that would enhance the game in general. There are exceptions to the rule, but even those tend to prove it, in a way. Open world games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row have plenty of “pointless” areas, but they exist to enhance the open world. An area that isn’t used in a quest line has purpose if it’s there to create the feeling that the world is more real.

So, because everything in a game has purpose, the savvy gamer has been trained to expect results from almost everything in the game world. Thus, the first time I tipped, I expected some invisible generosity stat to tick upwards until it hit max and I got a free Pikachu wearing a party hat or something. Instead, I didn’t get thanks, no one ever mentioned it again, and according to the internet, the game doesn’t even track it. It literally does nothing.

So why have I been tipping every single NPC who asks?

It started pretty simply. I was expecting something to come of it. I thought tipping would increase my catch rate, or EV rate, or somehow influence an obscure stat with a byzantine equation drawing from my average tip amount combined with my tipping frequency. Then, I realized it wasn’t doing anything, and I didn’t’ tip a maid after asking her to send out a battle request for me.

And then she sassed me.

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That’s right, a wall of dots. Her unvoice-acted silence was deafening, so much so that I spoke to her again, and gave her a tip that time. And then I continued giving everyone else tips, because I felt guilty that a fake person was angry because I didn’t give them fake money for their fake service.

It’s ridiculous, but hear me out. I think it changed the entire game for me. One of my biggest problems with Pokémon has always been its lack of a cohesive world. To flesh out the things going on in this world and contextualize them as events happening in a fictional world with rules, I had to turn to other sources, like the cartoon and comics. I wrote an entire essay going into detail exclusively about the Pokémon world’s system of governance, just because I felt like it was one of the few things the game explained just enough as to make it seem insane.

Obviously Pokémon has always had bigger problems. Balance issues crop up every few games, and the fact that, at its core, we’ve been playing the same game since 1998, are also problems, but as someone who’s always been way too into Pokémon, and far too interested in world building, the cohesive world thing has always pissed me off.

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I always wanted to know how people operated in this world. Do they eat Pokémon? Is all work centered on Pokémon? Are there Pokémon rights advocates? Why are they both slaves and celebrities?  Do people have jobs? Is the Pokémon Center subsidized by the Pokémon League? And so on. The tipping thing was the first moment that a Pokémon world felt real to me without any extra material in years. It was the first time my imagination was truly piqued.

It was something pointless, something I do out of kindness and social convention in real life, but served no real purpose in this videogame. It made me poke around more and start talking to more NPCs, seeing if they needed tips, just so they could make their rent that week. It didn’t fill in any gaps, it just started making me ask more questions.

World building is usually about presenting both a question and an answer to your audience. Even in something like Harry Potter, Rowling presents a question, how do Wizards get to school without being seen? And then she answers it by having an invisible train platform. Of course, she wisely doesn’t answer the question in full. A savvy reader asks if there are other invisible platforms, or invisible airport terminals, who built the platform, when? And the smart world builder leaves it at that. Those answers aren’t necessary to have a realized world, but the leaving some less important questions to be pondered by the reader makes for a richer world, personalized to them.

Pokémon gave its incomplete answers, but the world lacked the fidelity to inspire the kind of questions world building needs. Sure, Red and Blue tell me that the Pokémon League is in charge of pseudo-government affairs, but since the world is so abstracted, I don’t really think about that too hard, at least not until years later when I stop and really consider that problem.

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Tipping in X and Y asks me a strange question. Do I give these people my hard earned pokédollars? It also asks and answers simpler questions, like how money is treated in this world for people who don’t need to buy pokeballs and hyper potions every day. But the most important question is if I’m going to tip. The answer is yes, because I’m interacting with them in a way that makes the world less abstract. I’m contributing to this weird economy, an undefined social construct. Something I don’t quite understand, but makes this fake world move.

When writers and artists build worlds, one of their greatest tools are those aforementioned empty spaces. Those areas on a map that don’t’ serve any purpose but to make you feel like this is a vast world where not all your questions are answered. A world where things can be wasted and answers aren’t offered around every corner. But when it comes to an interactive world? Nothing is greater than convincing me to contribute to a system I don’t quite understand, to make me interact with these digital mannequins as if they were real people.

It also means NPCs are no longer there for my benefit. Where before they existed only to talk about how much they love Pokémon, or point me in the direction of the next route, now they have an expectation that I give them something in return. NPCs feel just a little more real by opening that door. It’s a small thing, but world building is done in increments like that. Small touches of fidelity in the world do a lot, from the winding alleys in the game’s equivalent of Paris, to the NPC who mentions that cafes exist so people can debate views and opinions, like they did around the time of the French Revolution. It all adds up to a more fully realized, detailed world, and one that I explore with a real sense of wonder. I haven’t felt that way since I was a child playing Blue, and I’m so glad to be back in that world of imagination.

So that’s why I tip every time. Part of it is guilt, sure, but part of it is a sort of gratitude. Thanking these NPCs for inspiring my imagination for the first time since I was a kid. Also, I’m still kind of hoping it makes it easier to find shiny Pokémon somehow. Just a little, at least.

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Whatever Happened to Our Least Favourite Videogame Mascots?

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Whatever Happened to Our Least Favourite Videogame Mascots?

Cartoon mascot platformers were the genre of the mid ‘90s to early 2000s, but one day, they all suddenly disappeared, with onl a few stragglers carrying the torch into the HD era. Of course, with the death of the mascot platformer, many fan favourites were out of a job. Sonic and Mario are hanging in there, but characters like Gex, Banjo, and Kameo are still out there, looking for new work. Here are five forgotten mascots, who they were, and what they’re up to now.

Bubsy:

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Last Seen in: Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet- Atari Jaguar (1996)

Bubsy the Bobcat is best known for two things: his affinity for brain shatteringly awful puns, and Bubsy 3D, the shining symbol of why no one wants to go back to the early days of 3D platforming.

 You're gonna need to help me out here. What am I looking at?

You're gonna need to help me out here. What am I looking at?

The first couple of Bubsy games are unremarkable, if strangely difficult. Bubsy is probably lesser known as the world’s only haemophiliac bobcat. In the first game, Bubsy only takes a single hit to kill, which is ridiculous for a platform game. Later games gave him some extra health, but by the time he wasn’t defeated by a sideways glance, he was in Bubsy 3D, and manoeuvred like a tank.

Bubsy 3D pretty much overshadows every other Bubsy game (and the terrible cartoon), but I don’t think anyone has ever complained about that before this very sentence. Bubsy’s SNES, Genesis and Jaguar aren’t absolute nightmares, though Hardcore Gaming 101 once referred to the leap from Bubsy 1 to Bubsy 2 as going from “’pile of junk’ to ‘’terribly mediocre.’”

Bubsy’s original creator, Mike Berlyn, didn’t work on the sequel, but made a triumphant return for Bubsy in: Fracture Furry tales. In a 2006 interview, he referred to the experience as “being like a re-animator. Bubsy was dead and buried. ”

  "What could PAWSIBLY go wrong?"

 "What could PAWSIBLY go wrong?"

For context, both games came out the same year, so it was a pretty short death. Of course, Berlyn’s reanimation was so bad anyway that Atari, the publisher of Furry Tales, suggested that Jaguar owners buy Rayman instead.

Ouch.

Where is he now?

Accolade, Bubsy’s owner, was bought by Infogrames in 1999, and is now technically part of Atari. Though they’d never admit it, Atari’s executives still have a plan for Bubsy. Deep in the basement of their secret development labs, a new Atari system is waiting to launch. The Atari Jaguar will be avenged by the Bobcat, the world’s first pun-powered electronics device.

Aero the Acro-Bat/Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel:

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Last seen in: Aero the Acro-Bat 2- SNES/Genesis (1994)

Iguana Entertainment and Sunsoft’s greatest sin was not creating Aero the Acro-Bat, but being greedy.

 This game was brown and drab  before  it was marketable.

This game was brown and drab before it was marketable.

Aero the Acro-Bat was a middling, if forgettable 1993 platformer for the Genesis and SNES. Aero was a bat with awful hair who worked as a circus acrobat. He did battle with an evil former clown, who wants to shut down Aero’s circus. Now, I’m of the opinion that all clowns are evil, and you don’t need to be an “ex-clown” to be villainous, but I’ll accept Iguana Entertainment’s optimistic world view. It was the 90’s after all.

Anyway, Aero beats up the clown and his sidekick, Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel, and saves his circus. And then everyone promptly forgot about the whole thing for about 6 months. Sunsoft then decided to adopt Aero as their company mascot, which meant they needed to raise his profile. Thus, the sequels were born.

 If you squint, Zero's just someone's Sonic OC.

If you squint, Zero's just someone's Sonic OC.

In April 1994, Aero the Acro-Bat 2 was released, less than a year after the first. Also that month, Sunsoft put out a game starring Zero the Kamikaze squirrel, one of the first game’s antagonists. In November of that year, both games were ported to SNES. Within seven months, Sunsoft managed to totally saturate the market with Aero the Acro-Bat related games. They were oversupplying for a demand that didn’t exist.

 THAT IS NOT AN EX-CLOWN. THAT CLOWN IS VERY MUCH CURRENT.

THAT IS NOT AN EX-CLOWN. THAT CLOWN IS VERY MUCH CURRENT.

Unfortunately, the Aero games aren’t  that interesting otherwise. The villainous plot in Zero the Kamikaze Squirrel involves an evil (presumably French Canadian) lumberjack named Jacques le Sheets chopping down Zero’s forest home in order to print counterfeit money. Of course, the evil clown from the first game is behind it all, but the story really pulls at the heartstrings of Canadians who know what it’s like to be accosted by Quebec’s many evil lumberjacks. We suffer every single day.

Also, the evil plan in Aero 2 is called “Plan B”, which is some pretty heavy-handed political leanings for a game about a bat fighting a clown.

Where are they now?

Aero now lives on comfortably through some Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console releases. Zero on he other hand hasn’t been seen since 1994. There are rumours that he’s out there in the forests of Quebec, waiting for the day where he can finally take revenge on the flannel-adorned harbingers of his ruin. Soon, lumberjacks. Soon.

Conker:

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Last seen in: Conker: Live and Reloaded- Xbox (2005) 

Conker might be mascot embodiment of whiplash. He first appeared in Diddy Kong Racing as a new, child-friendly mascot character from Rare. Is Banjo and Kazooie were for kids in middle school, Conker was for their younger siblings.

His solo N64 game was delayed however, when the Game Boy Color game, Conker’s Pocket Tales came out and received mostly mixed reception for being yet another cutesy platformer. The N64 game was in development at the time, and was hewing too close to the Banjo and Kazooie games for Rare’s comfort. So, they pulled a 180.

 Look, snitches get stitches. Also impure races and bee plushies.

Look, snitches get stitches. Also impure races and bee plushies.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day feels more like an Adult Swim cartoon than a game concept. Conker is an alcoholic squirrel who was kidnapped on his way home after a night of binge drinking. On his way back home, he deals with a quadripalegic weasel, Nazi teddy bears, an operatic mass of feces, and by the end, a xenomorph that crashes the game.

By the end of the game, Conker is pleading with the programmers to bring his dead girlfriend back to life (she was killed by a weasel mafia boss), and monologueing about how you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Finally, he drinks his sorrows away in the bar where the game began.

Strangely enough, even though Nintendo had a very close working relationship with Rare at the time, they didn’t publish it, probably because it’s pretty much the exact opposite of the family friendly image Nintendo likes to keep. Of course, that didn’t stop them from telling Rare to change a few things in the game. Specifically, Nintendo asked for Pokémon to be removed from some of the game’s cutscenes, and the removal of a joke making fun of the KKK.

That’s right kids, Nazi teddy bears, binge-drinking squirrels, and a quadriplegic named “Kriplesac” is a-okay, but making fun of the KKK is just too much.

 Yes. That's a Sunflower with DD breasts. No, I can't explain it. Please don't think about it too much.

Yes. That's a Sunflower with DD breasts. No, I can't explain it. Please don't think about it too much.

Where is he now?

Conker’s Bad Fur Day got a remake for Xbox in 2005, but Microsoft decided to get stricter than Nintendo with the censorship, which drove most of its fans away. There was a sequel in the works, but it was cancelled when Microsoft bought Rare from Nintendo. Conker is mostly forgotten by Rare today, now that they’re all Kinect sports games and Xbox avatars all the time, but sources tell me you can still hear opera singing coming from a bathroom stall on the third floor that no one’s used in almost a decade.

Wild Woody:

Last seen in: Wild Woody- Sega CD (1995)

As the story goes, in 1995 Sega was looking for a competitor for Nintendo’s newest success, Donkey Kong Country. They wanted a game that could show off the Sega CD’s superior processing power, as well as have 3D graphics to rival what Rare was pulling off on the SNES. That same day, Sega’s executives were approached by the Number 2 Pencil Association of America, who wanted to make a game that would get kids excited about traditional pencils again, and leave gel pens and mechanical pencils behind.

 The face that sold exactly zero Sega CDs.

The face that sold exactly zero Sega CDs.

Okay, that last part is a lie, but it’s the only reasonable explanation for why Sega would make a mascot platformer starring a pencil, of all things.

Wild Woody almost seems like he was designed to end up in the unfortunate mascot graveyard. For one, he has the world’s worst name. Wild Woody is catchier than Peter Pencil, but Peter Pencil also isn’t a euphemism for uncontrollable erections. Next comes the part where he’s a wacky, ‘tude-ified pencil. A PENCIL. I don’t think it’s the first case of a non-animal cartoon mascot character, but Wild Woody is definitely the first tool-based mascot platformer.

 Is that God? Is Woody erasing God? Could God even create a pencil so radical it could erase even himself?

Is that God? Is Woody erasing God? Could God even create a pencil so radical it could erase even himself?

Worth mentioning are the prerendered 3D cutscenes, which, while more elaborate than Donkey Kong Country, are somehow orders of magnitude uglier than even Bubsy 3D. Trying to figure out what you’re looking at in the cutscenes is almost as challenging as moving Woody with the game’s stiff controls.

Woody still has the mascot-standard smirk, wild expression, and white gloves, but he also has an eraser on his butt which he uses to “rub out” enemies, according to the manual.

I’m starting to think Sega had an internal competition to see who could cram as many penis jokes as possible into one terrible game.

Where is he now?

Wild Woody has been (rightfully) forgotten by Sega, but one employee hasn’t let the torch burn out. Sonic, who still hates Woody for trying to take his place as Sega’s lovable mascot with ‘tude, made sure Woody was transferred over to the art department of Sega USA. Woody is being slowly whittled away, forced to draw pictures of Sonic until the day he dies.

Blinx the Time Sweeper: 

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Last Seen in: Blinx 2: Masters of Time and Space- Xbox (2004)

Poor, poor Blinx. He suffered a fate far worse than being an anthropomorphized cat stuffed into a dorky turtleneck/hoodie combo and steel-toed boots polished to a mirror sheen. You see, Blinx was supposed to be the original Xbox’s mascot.

 Seriously, tell me that shade isn't Mountain Dew green.

Seriously, tell me that shade isn't Mountain Dew green.

That’s right, that adorable, Mountain-Dew-green eyed face was to launch a thousand consoles. Probably more, if Microsoft had anything to say about it. Unfortunately, people were sick and tired of mascot platformers by then, no matter how forward thinking the time manipulation mechanics were (no seriously, it’s like a crappier Braid before Braid existed).

Blinx is a Time Sweeper, an employee of the Time Factory, a facility that creates, distributes and maintains time. Which raises a lot of questions. Why are cats in charge of manufacturing time? Also, if Blinx’s job is to produce and maintain time, why are his powers represented by the buttons on your remote control? I think a more accurate title would be Blinx the VCR Sweeper, who is really good at setting the clock on it. He knows which buttons to hit, trust me, it’s nuts.

Anyway, a bunch of pigs mess up time in a certain dimension, so the Time Factory stop giving them time, freezing them in place But then Blinx gets a call from a local princess, and decides he has to save her; even though his job description is being a time janitor, not macking on human princess from other dimensions.

Basically, Blinx is horrible at his job, so the clunky controls and weird difficulty his games are known for are an early example of ludonarrative integration.

And you thought I couldn’t be pretentious about a cartoon cat wearing goggles.

 

Where is he now?

Surprisingly, Blinx is still at Microsoft. His developer Artoon was absorbed into AQ Interactive, and Microsoft was only too happy to offer him a job at their headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Blinx is now sweeping the halls of the Xbox division, hoping one day they’ll make him into an avatar costume, or better yet, a gritty reboot.

 

 Now that's a face that not even anyone at all could love.

Now that's a face that not even anyone at all could love.

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Card Hunter- Free to Yay

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Card Hunter- Free to Yay

Card Hunter puts free to play gaming to shame.

 Card Hunter is available for free, in your PC/Mac browser, right  here .

Card Hunter is available for free, in your PC/Mac browser, right here.

Card Hunter is a lot of things. It’s a turn-based RPG for one. It’s also a card game, and a tabletop game. But the tabletop is virtual, and there’s also fake cheetos and soda on it. Also it’s a Dungeons and Dragons style role playing game, but the dungeon master is a pre-scripted character who talks you through quests. As you might have gathered from that opening statement, it’s also a free to play game, but one of the few that isn’t a soulless cash-grab money-pit.

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Card Hunter has a very meta presentation, with you and your virtual friend playing the two player game, Card Hunter, as player and DM respectively. You roll characters D&D style, from a pool of three races (human, elf and dwarf) and three classes (warrior, mage, and priest), and then equip them with different items that affect their decks. The way it works is actually pretty elegantly designed deck building system that essentially takes away any real world value to individual cards. Everything you equip to your characters has a 3-6 cards associated with it, usually ones that have something to do with what the item is. For example, a sword might have a few stab cards and a couple chop cards. Each race and class has a few “natural” cards associated with it that get shuffled into the deck Humans might have a walk card or two, but a quicker elf will have a few run cards instead. Each card acts as an option you would have in a regular RPG, and plays out pretty similarly. Walk lets you move two spaces in any direction, bludgeon does four points of damage, and armour protects you from damage depending on a (again, virtual) dice roll. It’s all very easy to understand, and makes deck building a pretty simple thing for the less card savvy among us, but also creates some very cool complexities as the system starts to show more of its hand, if you’ll excuse the pun.

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Later on in the game, you’re introduced to traits, black and orange cards that are automatically played if you draw them into your hand. Black traits are negative, and include effects like the loner card, which causes a character using it to take damage at the end of the turn for every other character adjacent to them. Orange traits are positive, and often boost certain types of attacks or spells. The trick is that a powerful piece of equipment, one with plenty of useful cards associated with it, will usually carry a negative trait. So it’s hard to create a truly overpowered character, since luck of the draw will usually ensure you end up with a negative trait on one of your characters at some point. Most of these traits are neat little role playing touches for your characters too, which helps the game in its presentation of a classic tabletop RPG. The gameplay side effect is the point, but the cute touch of turning these virtual cardboard standees into characters with character flaws is one of the things that Card Hunter does that puts it head and shoulders above the competition.

Another is its ridiculously generous approach to the free to play business model. For starters, the entirety of Card Hunter, single player campaign, multiplayer, every piece of equipment and card is free. Of course, that means there are microtransactions and an in-game currency to buy with your real money. You can exchange real human dollars for pizza, which can then be exchanged for various things, like a shop that sells chests of random loot, different (purely cosmetic) character models, and membership to a club that gives you one piece of bonus loot after every battle.

 

 "What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game"

 

You can also choose to buy a starter pack that includes some pizza, a one month membership to the extra loot club, some bonus character models, and 11 “treasure hunts” that get you a fixed piece of high level loot which you can just find as a random drop in other missions.

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The starter pack will basically make you instantly competitive in multiplayer, with only minimal loot grinding in the campaign, but it isn’t necessary. The game also gives you some free pizza anytime one of the paid mechanics is introduced, so you can try them out before you buy in.

What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game, financially speaking. It can be a completely free game, where you have to grind through the (very, very fun and charming) campaign mode to get competitive in multiplayer, a one time $20 purchase that lets you speed through the campaign and have a better chance in multiplayer early on, or a microtransaction-based game where you can pay for some bonus loot, but never enough to really turn the tides unfairly in your favour. Unlike most microtransaction games, paying in isn’t necessary for staying competitive. Even the Card Hunter’s Club, which nets you a piece of bonus loot after every battle, isn’t “pay for the best loot” it’s “pay for some extra loot that has a chance of being great.” Paying in doesn’t let you conquer the game, it just increases your odds, but never too much.

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It’s a delicate balance there, but it’s one that  Blue Manchu is pulling off flawlessly for now. And even if you avoid multiplayer altogether, the totally free single player campaign has 155 battles, more than enough to keep you busy for a while.

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That’s not to say the game is perfect, of course. Since it relies so much on random drops, dice rolls and draws, you can sometimes end up losing battles because you drew a bad hand on your first turn and couldn’t make up the lost momentum. The randomness is part of both the D&D and card game DNA in Card Hunter, but that same randomness is what caused a lot of people to leave tabletop RPGs behind and take up their console cousins. It’s a source of frustration, but there’s no changing it, since it’s so intrinsically tied to the games very concept. The 155 battles are also split across 50 or so missions, making individual battles feel less important than the final battle of the mission they’re in. It’s hard to complain about a totally free game, but I do hope for some paid mission expansions in the future.

But for people who can handle a little randomness, and anyone who has some fond memories of playing D&D in a dimly lit basement, drinking warm soda and eating cold pizza, Card Hunter is something you should be playing right now. Hell, even if that doesn’t describe you, you might as well give it a shot. It’s the best card game I’ve played in years, and the fact that it’s free just means I’m actively looking for ways to give these guys my money.

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