Category Archives: Uncategorized

Consentacle has been successfully funded!

Thanks to the support of several thousand people, Consentacle is being mass-produced starting in early 2018. If you backed us on Kickstarter: thank you! We’re planning on getting you a copy of the game in May 2018 — as well as a 12-page prequel story in digital comic form. If you didn’t catch the Kickstarter, you can still check out the campaign page for all the details about the new version of Consentacle… and it’s not too late to order a copy for yourself! You can pre-order Consentacle on our BackerKit store along with other bonuses like a rubber+cloth playmat, limited-quantity signed prints of Consentacle artwork, and more.


Learn to Play: A Lack of Taste

I had the chance the other day to see one playtester’s comments on a game being made by a friend of mine. The player’s thoughts went something like this:

  • “Look, I’m a gamer, and you ought to know that gamers are the most discerning kind of consumer.”
  • “I had to play this level twice. I can’t believe you forced me to to repeat an experience. This makes me angry. This makes any real gamer angry, and that’s just a simple truth.”
  • “If I give you my money and give you the time I spend playing your game, I expect you to work for it by providing enough experiences, not by having me repeat something.”
  • “Truly successful games don’t involve repetition. That’s why Real Gamers don’t play MMOs and the people who play them aren’t actual gamers.”

These comments struck me–and everyone other colleague who read and responded to them–as ridiculously wrongheaded, entitled, and over-broad. They’re also expressive of an entire ideology about games and gamers that veers close to conventional wisdom in some quarters. The problems with this thinking are pretty clear to me: games, however you look at them, almost always involve repetition. We play, strive, fail, and loop back to checkpoints and saved games to try again, or try differently, experiencing time and recursion in ways that would make a film or a novel “experimental.” In games that let us interact with story, we finish, then play again, read again, to choose another choice that bends towards a different texture of storytelling, perhaps a different ending.  The opening moves of team sports, the strong gambits of classic chess games, grow familiar to players and spectators through countless repetitions, even earning themselves names. The patterns and process that lead to the outcome or ending of a game are worn into grooves by repeated acts, like leather grown buttery and supple with long use, even as the outcome remains uncertain for competitors, the possibilities of ending unknown to a first-time single player. Genres of games are born out of commonality and repetition of fundamental interactions: do this, like you did in that other game.

Game creators who’ve spent any amount of time conducting playtests have learned that playtesters’ opinions aren’t what a playtest seeks to elicit. Playtests aren’t focus groups, in other words. Playtesting a game is useful if you want to see what kinds of experiences are produced from playing your game; those experiences can be just as varied as individuals are, but the more vocal about opinions someone is, the less likely they are to communicate about the rawer levels of their own experience, their own reactions. Excellent playtesters can watch themselves without thinking too much about what’s “wrong” or “right” about the game, which is why game designers are often described as the worst possible playtesters: we think too much about how we might create part of the game differently, and not enough about what’s happening to us as players.

Similarly, the player whose thoughts are paraphrased above wasn’t talking about his experiences of play; he was filtering those experiences through a matrix of received wisdom about how games should and shouldn’t be made, what kinds of activities they should and shouldn’t involve, and what makes him part of a superior class of gamer. I’m pretty sure, however, that repetition in and of itself wasn’t what upset this self-described member of the “gaming elite” — I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that he was type of player who’d be fine learning a set of moves to repeat into a situational combo for a fighting game, the type of player who’d die ten times in a level of Super Meat Boy and repeat it ten times through increasingly clenched teeth, and so forth. The repetition isn’t the problem. The time invested isn’t exactly the problem either–not in a cultural context where gamers still evaluate many game products on “hours of gameplay.” If I read between the lines–which is often the trick with trying to glean playtesting insight out of this kind of heavily filtered report of experience–I suspect the real problem is that he wasn’t given the emotional payoff that he expected to receive in exchange for his money and effort. He found the repetition unwarranted, unsatisfying. Continue reading

Consentacle: How do I get some?


[Update: 3 years after I wrote this post, Consentacle is on Kickstarter! Thank you for your patience. In the intervening time I was juggling a lot of other things: starting to teach full-time, getting married, and moving into a new home where we had to fix the ceiling! And then I finished the slowly-advancing plans for production. In case you’re curious about my design notes below about what’s coming next, all those thoughts were part of the design goals for the new set of Advanced Cards that will ship with the game if it’s fully funded. The most ambitious ideas (more characters to pick from, purely competitive sex, three-player mode) didn’t survive the testing and design exploration process — some of them definitely wound up in “yeah… that’s a different game, not this one” territory.)]

[Important Note that’s important enough to go at the top: you can get the rules for Consentacle here!]

Consentacle debuted at the 5th annual No Quarter exhibition of games, which was a great success! Thanks to everyone who came out to try Consentacle and the other three No Quarter games (Slam City Oracles, Corporate Vandals, and Dog Park). The game worked better than I had hoped in a public setting–despite its racy nature and the fact that it’s a card game that takes a little time to learn–and Evan Narcisse was on hand to do a write-up for Kotaku.

The most common question I’ve gotten since setting the game up at No Quarter is “how do I get this game?” It’s not currently for sale–there are only four complete sets in existence, in part because Melanie Bossert only had time to cut a limited number of Trust and Satisfaction Tokens. I’ll have at least a set or two at Indiecade in a few weeks for those who’ll be there and can track me down while I’m helping to run this year’s conference sessions.

Beyond that, what’s next? I’m overwhelmed by the positive reception and interest in the game, and something like a Kickstarter is not out of the question in coming months. Because the current version of Consentacle was put together in the space of a few months especially for No Quarter, there are a lot of issues to sort out before that can happen. One one hand, making sure we can do production of things like tokens and playmats is important to me, since Consentacle is particularly physical and… sensual? Even more than those logistics, however, I don’t consider the rules and cards of Consentacle to be final yet. In addition to being a game about consensual sex, Consentacle is designed to be a game that straddles two genres–cooperative games with limits on information, such as Hanabi or Way, and deck-designing games with complex resource management, such as Netrunner. Consentacle currently has only two pre-built decks: Kit and Dup, the two characters shown in the image above. These two decks are great as an introduction to the game: they’re symmetrical and work well together. We were originally hoping to have two more identity cards (Kulos and Joe, both more on the masculine-presenting spectrum) with slightly different decks to choose from, but there just wasn’t time.

So, what’s the point of all this? Why would you want to WAIT to get your hands on these cards, with their gorgeous James Harvey illustrations? Well, my goal for Consentacle is to explore these themes–consensual sex, intimacy and turst, different and othered bodies–in a game that’s relatively easy to learn, but also deep, replayable, and expressive.  The current version has convinced me this is possible, but there’s a ways to go still. In case you’re curious or tantalized, here’s what I’m working on in terms of the design:

  • Greater Replayability. It’s possible to “master” the current version of Consentacle if you and a partner both come to know the decks really well. There are only a few players who’ve reached that point already, of course, but when you get there, the result of your encounters mostly has to do with luck and the occasional communication misfire. It’s still a lot of fun to solve this collaborative puzzle, but my idea of a great cooperative game is one that creates new situations–and that means the game needs more cards and a slightly different combo system!
  • Better Influence over Randomness. The randomness of shuffling your deck and drawing cards in order is a huge obstacle for most deck-dueling games, and it’s what makes one session of Consentacle quite different from the next as well. At one level, this is all well and good–not every time you have sex is going to be mind-blowing, and a lot depends on synchronicity, timing, and head-space between you and your partner(s). When it comes to gameplay, however, randomness can get downright annoying, as Mattie Brice discusses in a recent piece. Other deck-dueling games rely on mechanics like “tutoring” to let players control some of the vagaries of a shuffle, and even the first version of Consentacle has a few cards like this (the Extension Cards, which are currently designated for advanced play) that give you more options for controlling your hand, adjusting timing, and giving hints to your partner.
  • Self-Expression: what are your moves, what’s your body like, who are you? Consentacle is the kind of game that I hope will evolve to be highly replayable via creating and modifying a deck of cards (just as in many collectible card games and deck design games) rather than by throwing a lot of random challenges at you. The themes of the game work very well with bringing a character’s (or your own) unique predilections and aptitudes to the table, after all; right now, everyone who plays has an Envelop card and a Penetrate card, but there’s no reason these particular moves have to be part of every Consentacle encounter! What if you could make a deck that’s more heavily based around Licks or Bludgeons? Or an Extension Card called “Stone” that favors a “shoot the moon” strategy where you end up taking a lot of Satisfaction in the fact that you’ve satisfied your partner without being touched much or at all yourself? (That last sentence will make more sense if you’ve played the game, and if you know some queer terminology.) As your decks become more and more different than those of your partner, and don’t necessarily line up with each other as well, a new kind of cooperative challenge may emerge–or at least I hope so, since a lot more playtesting of this concept is needed! Every time you mutate and redesign your deck, basically, you’ll have to figure out if and how it’ll be able to cooperate with the decks of your playmates. Sound interesting?
  • Competitive Sex and Beyond. As I talked about in my last post, one of the most interesting things that came up during playtesting was that some people I showed the game to really wanted to try and play Consentacle competitively–actively trying to tip the scales of satisfaction in their favor. Some of them even managed to try this with the final No Quarter version of the game! Unfortunately, the current decks don’t have any cards that are particularly useful for this style of play–there aren’t any cards that let you betray your partner and take Satisfaction from them, for instance. This omission may seem obvious–it’s primarily a game about working together to have a good time, right? And yes, Consentacle is intended to be a cooperative game first and foremost, but if two consenting partners want to engage in a struggle for dominance and pleasure-taking (super-NSFW link) –well, I would be more than happy to facilitate that. Good times will be had by all: you just have to add more modes. Don’t want competition? Play cooperatively and put cards in your deck to match. Beyond that… three-player mode? That might require entirely different sets of cards, but we’ll see!

This is all a preview of a design process that I’m just beginning now that No Quarter is over — and it’ll probably all change quite a bit before there’s a version of the game you can buy! I’d love to know what you think, especially if you’ve already played the No Quarter version of Consentacle. Alternately, if you’re not among the few people who got to come and play the game during the exhibition–does reading all this still leave you feeling like “I don’t care, just SELL me some cards immediately, even without the fancy laser-cut tokens!?” Or maybe you’re just like “how can I get some of that amazing artwork?”  I’d love to any or all of the above, or other reactions as well; your support and thoughts are helpful for getting this game to the next stage where, I give you my solemn vow, it’ll be even more worth owning. Feel free to leave comments here or tweet at me.

A lot of people have written me or left comments and tweets saying they’d love to playtest the game. Since the No Quarter version is all done and I’m going back to the design board to work on the above stuff, it’s likely I won’t have another version that’ll be useful for me to playtest for some time. However, if you leave a comment saying you want to playtest, with an e-mail address (they’re not visible to the public, don’t worry) I’ll put you on the playtest list for a future print & play version of the game.



Design Notes: Consentacle


Posting about one of my own games for a change: I’m honored to be one of four New York City game-makers that were asked to create a game for the fifth annual No Quarter exhibition of games. My game is called Consentacle, and it is:

a cooperative card game for two players;

that represents a consensual sexual encounter between a curious human and a tentacled alien;

where the players have to figure out how to build trust and do sexual things with each other, even if they can’t communicate easily.

Consentacle was first announced during the Sex Games panel at this year’s edition of the amazing Different Games conference, and although I talked a little bit about the background of the game (which at that point was a little embryo) I’ve only shared snippets since. Here’s a further look at the game in mock Q&A format, although I’m not releasing full rules before No Quarter, in part because some rules are still in flux.

So it’s a game where you have sex? How does that work?
My earlier sex-centric game from around 2006, Sex-Mix, is a simple set of rules for playing a game during sex. It makes sex into a hopefully hilarious and disruptive competition, and quite possibly makes the sex you’re having worse. Consentacle, on the other hand, is just a representation of sex. You can play it with friends… even if you don’t intend to have actual sex with them! It’s flexible like that. It’s also not NC-17 explicit in its depictions of sex–in part because the game’s meant to be played in public at the exhibition, possibly by people who aren’t sexually interested in each other, but mostly because it wasn’t really necessary to go really blue.

The cards in Consentacle mostly represent actions that you’d like to do with each other–from staring intensely at your partner to licking them or restraining them. As in many deck-based card games, each player has their own deck of cards from which they draw a hand and play cards; each player simultaneously plays one card from their hand, and depending on the pair of cards that’s played, you carry out different actions in the game. Those things mostly have to do with moving around and exchanging a resource that each player has, called Trust. Trust is represented by colored tokens: red for the alien player, and blue for the human. (A rough version of both tokens is shown above — they fit together.) When you’ve done that, you draw a new card and start the next turn; the last turn starts when you have no cards left to draw.

Continue reading


Not Gonna Happen

One of the best things about thoughtful game criticism and analysis is that it engenders more of the same. I’ve been writing a lot on game design lately (though not for public consumption… yet) and my thoughts and reactions are even more spurred on when I read a response to a game that’s as heartfelt and personal as Merritt Kopas’ writing on Gone Home. It gave me something more to write about, and in writing on this game I’ll hopefully keep my gears turning as I finish up other writing projects, and the perpetual motion machine of negentropic creativity will roll on.

Merritt’s piece was sincerely personal, like listening to someone describe the sensation of slipping on a glove. I could write a lot about Gone Home‘s setting and themes, since I’m the same age as the protagonists (right between the two sisters) and grew up in the same area, listening to the same kinds of music. I had some similar-but-different experiences around being a queer teen in the 90s, some of which hurt to remember. All that resonance left me feeling full of jumbled feelings and flashbacks that don’t feel super-relevant to the present or this game, honestly. What my mind snagged on instead was a single moment in the game, where you direct Kaitlin Greenbriar to pick up a piece of paper that’s sitting under a table in the basement servants’ quarters of her family mansion. Like so many other notes and letters and diary pages littered around the house, it’s something written by her sister Sam — a description of the first time she and her girlfriend Lonnie have sex. Unlike all the other epistolary fragments of story, the game actually prevents you from reading this account for more than a few seconds — Kaitlin interrupts you, a bold move for a character who’s mostly just been walking around, poking walls, and picking everything up to show you whatever you feel like staring at.

Games are always resisting players’ impulses and desires in one way or another: “Nope, cant do that.” The limits of a world are structured by the rules and the where those rules fall away into nothingness: you can’t move onto that space because there’s a wall in the way, you can’t jump down to see what’s below the screen because there’s nothing there but death. When these limits intersect with stories and fictional worlds, the results are hand-waved a little or a lot. You can’t swim into the ocean because your character becomes mysteriously fatigued! The bridge between Staunton Island and Portland is under construction, buddy. Your ancestor didn’t walk into this neighborhood of Renaissance Venice, so our detailed computer simulation will break down if you walk through that archway! The point is not so much what excuse a guard or construction worker gives you: players all know that the game itself is trying to say something. Nope, this is not the way to go at this point, try something else. The same thing happens in dialogue between characters; nobody actually thinks that the mayor of a RPG town is actually supposed to be repeating “I hope those kids make it back safely!” over and over ad infinitum after the third time you speak to him; it’s just the game telling you that it’s time to move on.

Continue reading

A Hasty Review: Howling Dogs

It’s been nearly a year since I finished any writing for this “culture consumption” blog, in part because of other projects and in part because I end up feeling unsatisfied with whatever I start. Today, two things I’d noticed recently intersected in my mind:

  1. There is only one lengthy, in-depth review of Howling Dogs by Porpentine. This one review was written by Emily Short, who’s one of my favorite game critics (in addition to being an excellent storyteller and game designer). I may be saying that in part because she’s responsible for my favorite ever review of a game I worked on. In any case, Howling Dogs is part of a set of ambitious, experimental works which have been batted around quite a bit recently — as if they were just object-lessons or beach balls — in a hoary “what are games” debate that involves formalisms battling anti-formalisms and narrative being at odds with gameplay and so on and so forth. I came out of those conversations feeling like more justice ought to be done for many of these works by examining them as games — not just as beautiful eccentricities, collections of well-turned phrases, or controversial position statements. 
  2. Zach Gage recently posted his own attempt at defining what a game is, which he wrote a while back. Unlike many definitions, it involves an attempt to be broad, inclusive, and centered on player experience.
    "A game is from the player's point of view.
    A player is playing a game when they are engaging in critical
    thinking about the interactive decisions they are making with
    regard to the system they are engaging with.
    We can also colloquially use the term 'game' to describe a
    system typically engaged with by players in a game-like

    Definitions should be useful, and I find this one very useful. What’s more, it seems like it would be useful for understanding more about Howling Dogs. When I first played that game, I was definitely engaging in critical thinking about what words I was clicking on. I don’t know if Zach’s definitely is completely self-consistent or seamless or whatever–for instance, I would add that a player is only playing a game if they are “playing” which involves a different attitude about what you’re doing than “working.” For example, you can be making critical-thinking decisions in an Excel spreadsheet, balancing your budget, and you are not playing a game. However, you can “play” that activity as well, if you figure out how and want to; again, it depends on the player. OK, enough self-indulgent fun with definitions.

So here is what happened when I played Howling Dogs; this is the critical thinking I experienced, with further thoughts and reactions occasioned by that process. I am not going to attempt to describe the game in detail, because this is not a review to help you decide whether to play it. It is a free game that is worth the time it takes to play; you should play it yourself before reading this. I had to play it again myself just now, to try to remember what my initial reactions were; Howling Dogs is a work that changes significantly upon repeated experience.

Howling Dogs begins by asking you to unfold a Kenzaburo Oe quote which mentions the howling dogs of the title. From the tone and content, I thought I might be recognizing an excerpt from The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. (I was.) To me, that story is about believing that you are trapped: trapped by choices your parents made, trapped by illness, trapped by history, trapped by inevitability. It’s a strong and memorable story for me–in part because Oe is from the same generation as my mother, who also grew up in war-torn Japan and was forever shaped by that experience. (Her experience, inevitably, has shaped mine.)

You appear to be imprisoned in Howling Dogs. The nature of your confinement isn’t clear. The first thing I did was pace the contours of that confinement through exploration, feeling out the space. My search acquired some information: you are given some basic means of self-care. Your supplies are rationed for “mission success.” You have considered escaping down a trash chute. The other thing in the space with you is a virtual reality simulator. When I discovered what this was I immediately backed out of the decision to use it, because a virtual reality simulator in confinement speaks to me of distrust. The choice to enter it reminded me of the high value of televisions in prisons, where they’re used as bribes for pacification and collusion. Still, there was nothing else to do after I exhausted the available rituals of self-care.

Many games that advertise choices actually seem to be telling stories about inevitability, fatalism, or not having any choices. There’s been a trend lately: Bioshock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line, to name some of the bigger-budget, higher profile examples, where everything violently devolves due to choices made before the player even started playing. The Walking Dead is another example; a lot of the choices in that game end up being about how you live your life and react to situations, even futile ones. They’re not choices about “affecting the game state” that let you “reach a different ending,” they’re part of the texture of living through a hard situation. The trend may be related to a feeling on the part of designers, critics, even players, that a pre-defined, scripted set of choices doesn’t resemble true agency at all… so why bother? This fatalism about choice is part of why I invoked Zach Gage’s definition, with its emphasis on what the player’s thinking. The “narrative choices” in these games still allow players to engage in critical thinking about what they’re going to do given the system they’re presented with. That critical thinking is enabled by the fact that the player has not solved the entire game yet, does not have complete insight into the full tree of decisions. If they did, then the choices would involve far less critical thinking, just as making a choice in tic-tac-toe has less meaning when you’ve already solved that entire system. If you could solve chess yourself, those choices would become practically non-choices as well; but before you have done so, all of these choices are ambiguous, and you must make them based on your understanding of the system.

Back to Howling Dogs, which feels to me like it may have inverted this question. More conventional games spotlight the player into an important position of agency: what are you going to do now? How are you going to do it? It’s up to you! Fatalist games then slide down a slope into questioning whether any of this matters when you run into situations of inevitability, strong historical currents, or the infinite regress of prior decisions and events. Howling Dogs starts at the bottom of that slope: you are confined, without any idea why. There seems to be nothing to do but consume what you are given and march forward. The structure and context make you wonder whether there’s any way out. (There is a way out, and there is a riddle to be solved.)

As I said, my first instinct was to look for a path that seemed less accepting of what I’d been handed. When it became clear there wasn’t one, I thought of the kind of compromise that prisoners of many kinds of have faced: if I am deprived of my freedom, I still have my will, my mind, my body. So I resolved to at least diligently take care of myself as the days ticked by. If Howling Dogs had allowed me to do push-ups to maintain physical fitness, I would have worked that into my routine as well. The choice of diligent self-care in an absence of freedom, however, gets revealed as a false path: your means of self-care start to break down, eventually leaving you with nothing but bare sustenance. Before long there’s no shower, no way to clean your space, no purportedly calming visual meditation.

Although I felt an idea being conveyed here (“only taking care of your simplest needs is not enough”) there doesn’t seem to be a diegetic reason for it — what is causing your situation outside of virtual reality to deteriorate? Is this part of your punishment, or an indication of meaningless, dysfunctional systems governing your fate? I don’t think it matters, actually. As far as my perceptions are concerned, Howling Dogs doesn’t HAVE a setting, world-building, a plot or characters that develops and is resolved in the same way that we’re accustomed to think about this things. It is a single scenario studded with other, fragmentary scenes that you dip in and out of.

Any of the fragmentary scenes could be an entire complex story-world in its own right, but they are not. They’re lushly illustrated for a moment, windows into possible worlds — nearly all with echoes of confinement (a weaponized coffin, a garden that may be the view from a prison, the cell of Jeanne d’Arc, life with your abuser). You cannot escape these situations; before long you are thrown back out into the framing scene, into bodily need. The full shape of the game poses a single riddle through dozens of dizzying flights of prose, but that riddle is redolent with enough meaning for a much longer experience.

Another form of refusal occurred to me, one which players have given to fatalistic games before: simply quitting the game rather than drenching imprisonment in fantasy. This didn’t feel right in this case, though; if I refuse to play a game where I have no choice but to gun down innocents or dream racist counter-revolutionary scenarios into being, I return to my own life, where I can refuse the falsehood of such choices. If I refuse to accept that I am imprisoned in a game, I also enter into a denial that my own, real life is laden with confinement, problems and weights that just as surely demand escape. What’s more, Howling Dogs contains games within games; when you quit one, there’s another waiting. You can refuse some choices (no, I won’t help you kill) but so what? Your entertainment activity simply moves to the next title in the stack, no escape from escapism.

The fragmentary worlds of the virtual reality simulator contain many “obvious story choices” which do, in fact, alter the state of what happens in each sub-game and recapitulate several “types of choice” that have been explored by other games and interactive fiction pieces. In the first scene, when you choose a modality of seeing for a garden, the entire reality of the garden changes, an entire reality is branched. In the second, your identity as a player is decoupled from a character who has suffered something prior to your arrival, and your choices do not affect the resolve of that character for revenge; you are an unseen rider in thoughts, and reality changes only in your observer-interlocutor relationship to transpiring events. In the third, the virtual reality attempts to understand your preferences and mold itself to your desire or antipathy towards violence; if you express distaste, you’re milksopped with a faintly overlaid reality involving a tea party. The fourth scenario is a re-enactment of historical events, but one which can be derailed by a choice that didn’t happen; you can keep Joan of Arc from being recognized as a saint, but this outcome has the tang of a loss condition, a “desynchronization” from “what actually happened.” The fifth scenario is the most obviously fatalistic in theme: as an empress prescribed to be assassinated, you learn your fate as a child and make a procession of choices as an adult, both symbolic and political. Cities are tortured or trees hatch birds; these outcomes are amazing but do not change the inevitability of your assassination any more than players of Mass Effect or The Walking Dead could save their favorite protagonists. The final scenario is one of utter resignation to arbitrarily assigned goals and actions, a kind of lowest level of game-agency hell.

These choices lull you into familiar patterns, familiar ways of thinking about choices; they also condition you to recognize the “Game Over” symbol of this world, the recurring {*}. It wasn’t until I had nearly won the game that I recognized quitting each game early as another choice that, as I said, simply leads to a cycle of more virtual reality games. Howling Dogs does have a win condition and a loss condition, like many games, although it is an ambiguous enough work that many players probably don’t realize that continuing the cycle of “quit out of game, play next game” leads to the bad ending, the false terminus. The puzzle that must be solved to find the second ending — what might be called the “True Ending” or maybe the “canonical ending” in other games — is rich enough that it casts light across the shadows of the choice-play of the preceding scenes.

To win at Howling Dogs — and yes, that still feels to me like the correct term — is to escape these overtly samsaric cycles. To escape, you must resist the droning call of all the aforementioned kinds of choices to find a subtle, errant note that you only notice if you’re reading the text of the game carefully. It’s a perceptual challenge amidst a wall of fascinating distractions, and finding the correct move in the game requires skill at comprehending narrative and description. I’m certain that skill at navigating and understanding the tropes and structures of interactive fiction would also help a player locate the necessary clue and choices more reliably. That ability isn’t too different from that of experienced readers of mystery novels who can quickly solve them, or from the skill needed to solve and complete a single-player adventure game. (Yes, you can play a novel like a game if you wish.) I would wager money that players who found Howling Dogs via the IF community were more likely to win, and more quickly. Games do tend to develop and reward skill, after all.

The final choices preceding victory in Howling Dogs felt the most fraught with meaning to me; they are the moments where you must decide what’s important in all of this: escaping one layer of virtual reality into another where you have to eat and drink? Defeating an opponent? Getting away? My ability to analyze falters here; the final moments of the game are the widest spaces for interpretation. Even without fully understanding their meaning (and not knowing if the author does, either) the last choice made me ache the most, a choice that seemed heavy with meaning: beautiful, bold or true? These were yet more false choices, it turns out; I picked one, then realized my mistake. Fortunately I had just saved, by which I mean I could click my browser’s back button. The final “correct” choice towards the ending had flavors my palate could not name: Love? Passion? Prophecy? The realness of connection in spirit beyond dichotomies of body or mind? A refusal to abdicate the beauty of dreams for the lower Maslow levels of material need? A lightness, mixed with a heaviness. Despite moving through so many layers of reality fraught with painful imagery, I didn’t shed a tear until I reached Porpentine’s dedication at the last leaf. Then I spent a long time looking out my own window, into the sky.

Tasseomantic System Forecast

It’s been over a month since I started writing up various posts for this blog on The Hunger Games Adventures and dys4ia and Star Wars: The Old Republic and a half dozen other topics. Hopefully those thoughts will mature into coherence, but in the meantime I thought I’d write about a quickly-evaporating, transient cultural experience: fortune-telling. The art of reading tea leaves, as performed by my grandmother.

Diagram of Reading Team Leaves

I come from a family of ersatz fortunetellers. I say “ersatz” because the tradition only started with my grandmother. She began reading palms as a teenager in 1940s Wales, mostly for laughs and charming intrigue. In later decades, she employed many methods of divination: tarot, more generalized psychic counseling, everything short of a crystal ball. By the mid-60s she and her kids were living in the Los Angeles area, where they sometimes earned extra pin money by telling fortunes. On some occasions, they even leveraged our family’s barely-swarthy Celtic look and ringlets of dark hair to dress up like a family of Romany. (I suppose this wasn’t considered an incredibly sketchy thing to do a half-century ago?) They’d then tell fortunes at big parties thrown by wealthy Los Angeles socialites, earning tips and clients.

Continue reading

Journey vs. the Dark Side of Human Nature: Journey 1

“Violence is to be found in any action in which one acts as if one were alone to act; as if the rest of the universe were there only to receive the action; violence is consequently any action which we endure without at every point collaborating in it.” – Emmanuel Levinas

I’m too confident to look back as I clamber up a slope of dimly lit sand towards a ruined window. I know that the figure I’ve come to think as my assigned acolyte is following my gold-and-white cape like a reassuring beacon. The acolyte emits a small chirrup as it follows me up and through a high hole in the wall: this shortcut I’ve learned allows us to reach the final hallway of this treacherous underground passage.

On my last Journey up this mountain, I was with another white-cloaked veteran like myself, and traveling felt different. We strode steadily, nearly in unison, both aware the other had done this before. When one of us made a misstep, even an injurious mistake, a short double-tone chirrup was the only acknowledgement; presumably apologetic, mirrored back by the other. We knew these things could and would happen. We proceeded, carrying out the assigned tasks silently, like monks yet-again-enacting a long-practiced ritual.

In the shadowed depths, the acolyte and I had reached the final descent and could see two great mechanical serpents winding below. Having avoided them almost entirely so far, I wondered if the prospect of plunging right under their gaze would prove too fearful for my companion…

What to say about Journey? A breathtaking aesthetic experience. An exploration of unique style. A wordless narratve that can sweep you into emotional resonances–if you’re willing–that have seldom been reached in a game. A game that shows the culmination of a creative team that’s grown from innovative novices into visionary artisans of fine-tuned experience.

Lately I’ve been a little too taken with over-exaggerated similes that liken games to sexual experiences or trips on mind-altering substances. (Yes, I know how cheesy that is.) So here’s the pull-quote for this post: Journey is like being bound and gagged with silk ropes until you’re swaddled in fabric, then tied to someone else, and carefully brought to orgasm together.” I would be very surprised if this was the authorial intent — even had I used less provocative imagery. Still, this is what I brought out of my experience: themes of bondage, dominance, the paradoxical feeling of freedom and release from self that some submissives describe as the whole point. These things comprise an accurate backdrop to view at this game against. They are the facets of experience that make Journey an interestingly beautiful game to me, at the structural level, beneath the lovely particle engine and the carefully constructed expanses of sand and stone. They may also define the limits of what this game can mean or do, but that’s fine. Journey offers us a cool refreshment of a quality and type that we seldom get in other games.

* * *

I’ve been listening to wisdom about multiplayer online gaming for about twenty years. In the 90s that was on the newsgroups and then the MUD-DEV mailing list, both centered around the text-based virtual worlds that gave birth to massively multiplayer games like Everquest and World of Warcraft. In the new millennium, I went to the Game Developer’s Conference and listened to the most successful veterans in this arc of game development talk about the ins and outs of human behavior online–guys like Raph Koster or Rich Vogel or Gordon “ban ’em all and let God sort ’em out” Walton, and the ever-forward-looking Daniel James.

Continue reading

Timing and Context in Beat Sneak Bandit

Preamble: When I was at the Independent Game Festival awards with some friends, a few of us remarked that practically all of the nominees were of such high quality that we wanted to go home and play the ones we hadn’t played with yet. I was kind of relieved to see that kind of quality, given the controversy this year about dereliction of judging duty, where some games didn’t get played or barely were played at all. The quality of the nominees doesn’t excuse that by any means, but it would have been a much worse slap in the face if the games that did get through were shoddy. It also shows that the bar is set pretty high for independent games these days.

To me that means we need more different awards or venues for showing less polished, more experimental, lower-budget works. It also seems to mean that independently produced games can start taking over the mainstream awards, since independent games took home about half of the supposedly more mainstream, big- budget, publisher-funded Game Developer’s Choice Awards. So there’s a model for ferment and perpetual creative revolution: the current “indie games” overtake mainstream games, while more fringe venues for games produce a new crop that can rise up to dominate the indie game awards and be pushed forward in turn. Brandon Boyer probably has something like that written down somewhere already.

On to the real purpose of this post: I’m going to tell you about Beat Sneak Bandit, a rhythm-sneaking game for iOS that won Best Mobile Game at the aforementioned festival.

Like a lot of smartphone rhythm games, Beat Sneak Bandit involves tapping a touchscreen to the rhythm of a song. The well-deserved win at the festival was no doubt due to a combination of quirky characters, cute and stylish artwork, and neat audio design alongside an interesting elaboration of the tap mechanic. I mostly want to talk about the gameplay and audio design.

Continue reading