Posts tagged Games

Europe’s Largest Public School Of Video Games Gets A Major Upgrade

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

It’s a cold winter morning at Angoulême, a small town located at the Eastern side of France, and dozens of game developers, students and politicians are about to enter a huge building next to a river. The National Graduate School of Games and Interactive Media of France (ENJMIN) has a new home.

Since 2005, when the ENJMIN started offering graduate courses on game development, much has changed in the game industry. Games have, by and large, become more meaningful, they have a bigger audience now than ever, and they are crossing lines with other art forms more aggressively.

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These changes have also been part of the life of the school, which was founded under the hood of a bigger regional project that has built seven public schools dedicated to creative media in the same neighborhood of Angoulême, a city previously only known for its comics festival.

Building this school from an ancient cigarette paper mill cost 10 million euros ($11.6 million). It was funded by the Ministry of Education of France, the Regional Government and Pôle Image Magelis, the creative media cluster project that France started a decade ago in this town.

See also: Confronting Video Game Torture, After The CIA’S Report

At its inauguration, people gather in the school auditorium to hear game British video game designer Peter Molyneux give the opening speech. He talks about the importance of making mistakes and describes some of his errors when he began his new studio, 22cans, and while making Godus, his latest game. 

“Making mistakes is the most important ingredient in creativity,” he says. Molyneux is followed by a series of speeches by politicians that give their view on how games and other creative media are important to the economic development and cultural heritage of France. They also praise the founder and director of the school, Stephan Natkin, a stubborn professor that had a clear vision for the ENJMIN since its first years.

Apart from the high tech labs, large rooms and the beautiful river view from the project room, the most important elements at any school are the students. After a lunch break, the class of 2014 show game trailers and share some details of their games. 

From a virtual reality climbing experience using the Oculus Rift to a narrative exploring game where you interact with an A.I inside a spaceship, passing through an emotional journey of a fisherman, all of the games are surprisingly polished. The students are all at the end of their two-year Master’s program.

The inauguration ends with a speech by David Cage, one of France’s best-known game developers, and one of the vanguards of narrative video game experiences. After his talk, he decides to stay and spend some time talking to students. He might learn some new things.

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The Sublime Pleasure And Pain Of Cycling And Games About Cycling

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

It’s been about two years since cycling changed everything for me. I don’t just mean that I entered an obsessive phase, though that’s also true. Cycling has become a point of reference from which I reconsider daily life. It affects how I eat, dress, and how much time I spend with loved ones.

Cycling makes me think about my body, and other people’s bodies, and what they’re for, and how we build our cities to accommodate those bodies and what they’re for. Cycling changed the way I vote and how I invest my money. 

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When I visit distant and quasi-exotic places best known for their cuisine and art I’m instead interested in the grades of their hills and the presence or lack thereof of wide and accommodating shoulders on their roads. I wear tight and padded shorts often, and miss their reassuring support when I don’t.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that cycling, for me, has been of the same significance as a spiritual or political epiphany. Cycling represents feelings and ideas beyond my control, forces and industries preceding and greater than me. It’s the interface through which I navigate the world. Cycling empowers.

See also: Confronting Video Game Torture, After The CIA’S Report

I know how overblown this sounds to most, as all subjects of intense devotion must be to non-believers. I’ve never felt this way about, say, running, which has always felt a little bit like being mugged inside of a clothes dryer. All the more surprising, then, that cycling would not only be more enjoyable for me than running, but would provide the sensation of profound chemical conversion. After cycling, I’m on a cloud for hours. After running, I quit running.

I’m enabled by government money. I live in a national capitol, with hundreds of kilometers of scenic roads that are perfect for cycling—through provincial parks and over waterways and past heritage buildings like riverfront sentries. What makes this obsession tragic is that my city is also in a part of the world that tends to be bitterly cold and buried under snow for months at a time, barring those perfect riding roads from access on dainty road bicycles.

And winter is here. I am an addict in search of a substitute drug. I’m in need of the perfect cycling simulator.

Chemical Conversion Required

OK, so the obvious: it’s probably unreasonable to expect a sedentary activity like playing a video game to capture the ephemeral pleasures of rigorous motion. But how, and why, is it unreasonable? Can it be true, in this age of intuitive design and meta-design, that games are simply static and sports are simply not? Or am I assuming too much? What is it, exactly, that I want simulating?

To partake in endurance sports, and cycling especially, seems to be a sadomasochistic or Zen-like exercise in perseverance in the face of pain and wear. Sports video games, or at least the cycling games I played, seem uninterested in duplicating these psychological aspects, in exploring the animalistic state to which an otherwise sophisticated person is reduced by hours spent grinding one’s way up hills.

See also: This Virtual Reality Game Tackles The Post-Traumatic Stress Of Surviving Rape

 You may be able to simulate the experience of speed, or the adrenaline rush of a near-collision, or the tedium of strategic planning, but it’s difficult to simulate not just the experience but the mental fortitude required to engage in an activity that often results in open, weeping sores on your ass.

What I’m seeking in a cycling simulator, then, is the paradox of converting effort into accessibility without losing what it means to have lived through effort. I don’t know how this is possible.

You could argue that there are many non-sports games that more closely reflect the skin-of-your-teeth desperation and relentless brutality of endurance sports. Survival horror games like The Last of Us or Resident Evil feel more like a marathon than a sprint; game maker Pippin Barr creates crushingly difficult games where winning conditions are literally impossible to achieve; the Dark Souls franchise has made its name on being uncompromisingly difficult; Kane & Lynch and Max Payne 3 married their aesthetic design to the physical experience of pain and anxiety; Shadow of the Colossus or The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker featured sprawling, often empty-feeling landscapes and long, lonely bouts of travel, unknowingly mirroring the solitude and psychic rigors of endurance sports.

Humor me, though: what would a cycling game that accurately captured the mental and physical trials of endurance cycling look like? A cartoony, Mario Kart-esque racer, complete with power-ups and banana peels and exaggerated crashes (see also:Paperboy, the original arcade cycling simulator)? 

A manager tool, where resource-supervision and incremental equipment upgrades edge you towards competitiveness? A showcase for the graphical prowess of next-gen systems, taking the weather-dependent logistical nightmare that is filming a moving event and removing half of the variables to show only the more spectacular vistas of continental Europe?

While each of the above scenarios might make excellent games in their own right, each would have only coincidental allusions to what I love about cycling, would seem to point, resignedly, to the dry facts of cycling’s existence. I’m looking for verisimilitude, that chemical conversion, that other thing to which I can turn to when it’s February and I have a beard down to my knees.

 Can Pro Cycling Manager Fit The Bill?

To unlock the subtler appeal of endurance sports means taking the time to experience one of its events from beginning to end, for in so doing one understands why the term endurance is required. Watch any five minutes of a marathon and you have none of the context that makes a marathon a marathon. Watch all of a marathon and you can imagine how the physical exhaustion caused by your intense concentration on the television would be magnified several-fold for its runners.

Perhaps this is why the Pro Cycling Manager franchise is built, conceptually and spiritually, around the Tour de France, pro cycling’s signature event, which runs for 21 days in July, and is the equivalent of several marathons in a row.

See also: Call Of Duty Doesn’t Understand Grief—But Then, Who Does?

To appreciate the Tour de France is to contemplate its patent insanity. Its route travels through the Pyrenees and Alps on ascending grades that can only be described as torturous, and over cobblestone streets that pummel the spines of riders with repetitive shocks. Before the era of comfortable bikes and scientific training, cyclists would sprint into bars along the route and drink as much alcohol as they could to dull the pain.

At least 93 professional riders have died on the circuit in various crashes and accidents between 1894 and 2013. On this year’s Tour, Alberto Contador crashed his bike, broke his leg, then took his teammate’s bike and road with a broken leg for nine miles before finally giving up. The break, later revealed to be a fractured tibia, required surgery.

I’m not cherry picking the most sensational events, either. Contador’s crash was only one of about 23 major incidents that year. This on a tour in which tour vehicles share the road with riders, sometimes resulting in car-on-cyclist accidents, and an event in which the hundreds and hundreds of kilometers make meaningful separation of cyclist and spectator impossible

The Tour de France is not a place for reason or logic; it’s both an extreme example and utter distillation of the experience I hope any serious cycling simulator will seek to capture. The Tour de France is spectacle, yes, but also an absurd and vital contrast of hellish human suffering and obscenely beautiful European landscape that allows for meditation on the nature of both human achievement and insignificance in an uncaring and unknowing natural world.

So, yes, my expectations are ridiculous, and no, Pro Cycling Manager Season 2014: Le Tour de France does not bridge the experiences of systematically testing the boundaries of game design and one’s own humanity. Its developers seem stumped—as, to be fair, am I—about how to replicate the grind of cycling beyond what amounts to a series of quick-time events or asking that you mash a button as fast as you can repeatedly. While it has its moments of graphical precision, there is something disparaging about the fact that we have not come all that much further than the NES Power Pad crossed with an Excel spread sheet.

The game consists mostly of 3D simulation. You attempt to control the conditions for your team, and then you watch, keeping track of your cyclists’ diminishing stamina. It’s difficult to get good at, and almost impossible to enjoy.

I think that part of the problem is that the game lacks much feedback for the player; the moment when you instruct your cyclist to attack, it’s unclear whether anything is happening at all. You watch as your team chugs along like marionettes, alongside the other teams, with effortless repetition. The interface is complicated, often non-intuitive, and you rarely understand the results of your decisions. Your only indicators of whether your team is broaching the gulf between mortal man and immortal transcendence are a series of runic acronyms symbolizing … well, I’m not sure.

The irony is that the amount of time I spent in this game simply watching what amounts to 20 minute cut scenes reinforces the cycling-less reality of my wintery life—precisely the reality I am trying to avoid by seeking out a simulator. In my attempt to find the ideal replacement for real world cycling, I was only made more aware of the loss of real world cycling in my life.

The game does a reasonably good job of simulating the strategy of team cycling—insulating your sprinters or climbers from wind resistance, controlling pace to preserve energy, and, most of the time, watching as your riders fall behind. That is, until your team develops attributes, if you possess the patience required or are willing to tweak the speed of attribution in the options menu, a technique also known as “cheating,” and of which I happily availed myself.

It’s not all bad. All of the freakishly random elements attendant a chaotic event—tire punctures on cobblestone, weather changes, a sudden sickness, tweaks to equipment—are included. You are occasionally subjected to the capricious and random nature of outdoor competition, which felt real. You can even feed your riders an energy gel, which, in a game with so little to actually do, takes on the symbolic importance of storming the Reichstag. But ultimately, Pro Cycling Manager is closer to a fixed-rail shooter without the shooting. 

Collisions Are Part Of The Competition

You’ll be tempted to test the boundaries of the game world—can you set off, away from the peloton and through this charming countryside town? Did the programmers place a bakery or church just off the route? Can I ride as fast as I can into the crowd, and if so how realistic are the crowd injury animations? The answer, of course, is that you can do none of these things. The game glues you to the Tour’s inexorable and scenic track, as if you reassert that the televisual and the physical must remain forever apart, alien worlds of paradigmatic difference.

The game is even missing collision detection, so that riders phase in and out and through one another like ethereal representations of cyclists (which, of course, they are). The physical is eliminated altogether. The shadow of cycling—its ghost—flickers prettily on a wall.

If I were trying to be cute, I’d say that Pro Cycling Manager has unlocked “tedium” on the spectrum of simulated endurance. But its winter and there’s snow on the ground, and my bicycle is sitting, wheels up in my den, a symbol of my inverted world. Maybe we’ll have to wait until VR arrives, when a cycling simulator might come packaged with diodes to hook up to your body that stimulate your muscles so that you experience fatigue and strain.

See also: One Of The Most Elaborate Alternate Reality Games Ever Is Launching In 2015

 Maybe the best we can hope for are those spin classes with televisions playing loops of famous cycling courses. Maybe what I’m describing are cheap experiments for niche markets and I just need to find a winter sport that I enjoy. I hear cross-country skiing is nice.

Until then, Pro Cycling Manager Season 2014: Le Tour de France is not the answer. It remains a fascinating contradiction pointing to a dilemma at the center of gaming: an Apollonian approximation of Dionysian ecstasy, a figure, in a spreadsheet, representing the unknowable. Video games like this one invite me into their world, but they don’t seem to know what my world is like.

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One Of The Most Elaborate Alternate Reality Games Ever Is Launching In 2015

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

The day of your mission has finally come. You wake up, brush your teeth, pack your bags, go through security, and board your plane. You touch down at your destination, gather your things, and board a shuttle to the nearest train station—only to be arrested by “military personnel” and escorted away cuffed to a mysterious metal briefcase.

But you’re a member of the notorious paramilitary group The Black Watchmen … these kind of things are to be expected.

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No this isn’t reality—it’s alternate reality. The Black Watchmen is one of the latest and more promising entries into this particularly 21st century genre of game: Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs as they’re commonly called.

ARGs began to emerge at the turn of the millenium, defined by their use of transmedia storytelling—think late night text messages, creepy packages at your front door, cryptic videos, and so on—for creating a novel and often highly emotional game experience.

Throughout the game, both creators and players collaborate to suspend disbelief in the name of creating a convincing alternate reality, an aesthetic that’s been termed This Is Not A Game by ARG enthusiasts.

See also: The Year Video Games Got Funny Again

To get an idea of what an ARG is like, and the potentially profound impact it can have on its players, look no further than the mind-bending 2013 documentary The Institute, which told the story of San Francisco based ARG The Jejune Institute. Made by avant-garde artist Jeff Hull, the game lasted for three years and included more than 10,000 participants. Players were first sent down the metaphorical “rabbit-hole” to the game via suspicious flyers that led potential participants to a cult-like induction ceremony hidden in the backroom of a downtown skyscraper.

From there, the story evolved into a five-chapter saga that featured live events such as a 250-person faux-protest against the Jejune Institute through downtown San Francisco, intensive puzzles that led players into the darkest and deepest reaches of the city, and a final “Socio-Engineering Seminar” in 2011 that took place in a corporate hotel event space.

Throughout the documentary, the ex-participants interviewed look back on the project with a palpable nostalgia—not to mention confusion over what was in fact real or an artificial part of the experience. One participant even tattooed one of the concepts from the project on her wrist to serve as a constant reminder of her experience.

Enter The Black Watchmen

Besides The Jejune Institute and a few smaller projects, most ARGs have been limited to being sophisticated but one-off marketing gimmicks. And it’s not hard to understand why: ARGs’ inherent unpredictability and complexity make them nearly impossible to fund for any extended period of time without a corporate sponsor. Yet after a decade of being stuck in a cycle of corporate dependency, crowdfunding via Kickstarter has helped to spawn The Black Watchmen, one of the first major persistent and stand-alone ARGs in the genre’s short history.

Made by Alice & Smith, one of the most respected names in the ARG community, The Black Watchmen is an independent but loosely connected spin-off of their previous promotional ARGs for the online game The Secret World.

See also: The Year In Video Game Maps

As a player, you’ll become a member of the eponymous group, a shadowy paramilitary organization that is hired by global secret societies to help solve the unexplainable. Andrea Doyon, the so-called “Puppet Master” of the project, says they’ve drawn from TV shows such as The X-Files and Hannibal and the works of HP Lovecraft for creative inspiration in crafting the setting and story.

There’s an obvious connecting theme between each work—that powerful blurring of lines between the real and the fantastic that is ideal for ARGs hoping to create the This Is Not A Game aesthetic.

As a member of The Black Watchmen, you’ll be tasked with solving challenging puzzles that often require real-world knowledge, sharp investigative skills, and extensive community cooperation.

This will largely be done over an online, browser-based hub that allows players to connect with one another across the globe to share clues and pool knowledge. Large-scale missions that can sometimes require thousands of players will also appear on the map, allowing for the kind of communal problem-solving that’s difficult to find anywhere else except in an ARG.

The kind of puzzle solving and experiences so far teased by the team vary wildly, and largely depend on the amount of involvement that a player has decided to dedicate themselves to. Examples so far include finding hidden codes in promotional material,simpler and more traditional puzzles done over the online hub, and that real-world mission that ended in a player being arrested by “military personnel” in Montreal.

Doyon hopes that The Black Watchmen will help bring the genre to a wider critical and popular audience through this more varied and approachable system of player involvement.

In this regard, The Black Watchmen features four core levels of engagement—red, orange, yellow, and green—that tells the developer just how much you want the game to reach out to you.

“If you’re a red that means you control the game; we’re not going to invade your reality,” says Doyon. “But the people who keep coming… these people are in for much more than the red level.”

The red level, for example, is done purely through e-mail and the online hub system. For players hoping for a much more demanding and emotional experience, the kind who “keep coming” as Doyon says, yellow and green feature intense interaction between the fantasy of the game and a player’s reality. Real-time phone calls by actors and suspicious packages arriving at your door are par for the course, while the green level even requires the signing of a medical waiver.

Doyon explains that he wants players to “explore the world and try to discover ‘is this part of the game or is this not part of the game? And where’s the line?’”

Leveling Up

In part this push for player exploration is achieved through a storytelling approach that emphasizes hidden clues over explicit narration, as well as a substantial level of agency from the players themselves. The storyline is highly malleable—over 50% of the content will be player-driven—and failure is always an option. “You cannot save the nurse,” promises Doyon in reference to a hypothetical character, “and she will die.” There are no restarts or quick saves in an ARG.

This player agency requires extensive flexibility on the part of the creators—they must be ready to rewrite the story on the fly depending on whether players succeed or fail in their missions. This is especially true for The Black Watchmen, considering the unconventional and potentially momentous persistent structuring of the game.

The Black Watchmen plans to have multiple seasons, depending on crowd-funding, while also making the experience accessible to anyone at any time through permanently available missions—based on the constantly evolving history of the game—to help new players catch up and learn. Both are important innovations that have yet to be implemented in almost all previous ARGs.

See also: Twitch Plays Pokemon And The Year In Crowdplaying

This persistent, approachable structure is a crucial step forward, Doyon explains. “Often if you don’t start at the beginning of the ARG you feel lost. It’s really hard for someone to jump into the middle of an ARG and have a good experience or get something really profound out of it.”

The Black Watchmen’s persistent and player-malleable structure means that the project will be constantly evolving over time into something neither player nor creator can predict. Just as the line between game and reality is purposely blurred with the This Is Not A Game aesthetic, so too is the line between author and consumer.

But let’s not get too caught up in all these juicy postmodern implications—at the end of the day, The Black Watchmen’s accessible and persistent reimagining of a still nascent but promising genre is exciting enough.

The Black Watchmen will begin in Q1 of 2015. If you’re interested in joining The Black Watchmen’s ranks, visit its Kickstarter for more information.

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Lead image courtesy of Induction Center Key via Flickr

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Comedy RPG 2014:The Year Video Games Got Funny Again

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen as part of Kill Screen’s Year In Ideas series.

I was embarrassingly huge on the ClayFighters series as a kid. I drew fan art in class. One day the teacher caught me and I had to deliver a show-and-tell presentation on every image, as I had dedicated entire blank pages to a character’s portraiture.

I cherished the June 1997 issue of Nintendo Power, where ClayFighter 63⅓ was the cover story, and would read it by flashlight under the covers during a cottage trip when I’m sure many other kids had moved on to embargoed nudie mags. This is shameful due to the specific, important, unavoidable fact that the ClayFighter games are god-awful.

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As a fighting game, it’s stale and unbalanced, trying to ride the coattails of Mortal Kombat. As a work of comedy, it’s arguably worse, starting with the fact that its title fighter is an angry snowman named “Bad Mr. Frosty,” which sure doesn’t sound like a first choice, and ending with an Asian caricature in a karate gi who shouts “NO MSG” as a battlecry. The only logical reason that I—and presumably enough likeminded youngsters to keep the series afloat—lined up is that they tried to be funny, at least. It was a series built on the foundation of comedy material that’s just glad to have an audience.

See also: The Year In Video Game Maps

The me today and the me yesterday would at least agree that humor makes everything better. Cinema. Art. Music. Sex. Dinner. Even funerals, just to remind the procession they’re still alive. I landed with ClayFighters and the also-unfunny-and-unfun Gex because they knew that by advertising themselves as the class clowns they could wear red shiny noses to distract from their sad frumpy bodies.

Funnier games, better games, have come out over the years, from Monkey Island to Portal to this year’s Super Time Force. As good as the gags are, they still carry some laurels of their Redneck Rampage heritage. It’s nice and memorable to have humour in them, but they’d still carry themselves well enough if the gags were vivisected. The jokes exist to support the games; they aren’t exactly built-in. That was just how humor in video games worked—until 2014.

Fighting Al Gore To Unfriend Him On Facebook

South Park has been on the air since 1997. Close your eyes and feel old, and after that sting think about all the game genres the show was stretched to for a quick buck. A first-person-shooter, a kart-racer, a trivia game, a pinball machine, a tower defence and a platformer. Each one took a formulas as-is and added in fart noises. South Park Rally, for example, believed that Cheesy Poofs, vomit and anal probe power-ups was good enough.

See also: Twitch Plays Pokemon And The Year In Crowdplaying

This year’s South Park: The Stick of Truth, developed by Obsidian, is an RPG through-and-through, built with turn-based mechanics and defined by grinding, collecting and reading. But it bucks tradition everywhere it can. You can tell how much of an RPG Stick of Truth isn’t by how few decades it takes you to complete it. I can remember only one battle that required a second go—the first fight with Al Gore—and that’s mostly because I didn’t expect a his first attack, a Power Point presentation that puts you to sleep. The only reason you’d end up fighting him is as part of a side-quest about unfriending him on social media.

But no other enemy puts up much of a fight. Not the Nazi cattle, the battle with underpants gnomes beneath your father’s scrotum or the Canadian direwolves. And this was for a few reasons that the game obviously built in. Battles can be easily skipped by tripping plentiful traps in the world. You can poison foes from a distance with magic farts before engaging in combat to get a huge head start. You even have a whole extra turn just for items and healing spells, which always felt like sacrilege.

See also: Want To Learn About Game Design? Go To Ikea

This is a little bit like reverse-engineering the television show’s game curse. Where other South Park games glued jokes to a game, The Stick of Truth sacrificed difficulty and content in service of the jokes. This makes comedy the engine, the system, the genre—instead of just the hook.

The success of The Stanley Parable showed that, while it’ll frustrate a margin, there are plenty of players happy and willing to go into an entire game expecting little more than a solid punchline.

So You Find Yourself Photocopying Your Butt … 

Jazzpunk is a puzzle, adventure, and espionage game only by second nature. Its top-priority are sight-gags, and a code of law adapted from the files of Police Squad. Its chief inspiration isn’t other puzzle or adventure of espionage games but Zucker spoofs and Tex Avery cartoons. The physics of this universe are inspired by worlds which revolve around gaffs, elaborate, excessive, absurd and brutally literal devices.

Jazzpunk is a dedication to jokes, just like its favorite films. Where most games decide early-on how you’ll be playing the thing, Jazzpunk is flexible, remodeling your sense of agency just to fit some absurd gesture. So you find yourself photocopying your butt, throwing bread around, experiencing pizza nightmares and taking vengeance on pigeons. Slapstick is the adhesive for the spaces between props, and not Gex’s floaty cartoon slapstick, where googly-eyed polygon enemies wobble around, but really contextual pratfalls—most memorably one scene where you knock over a line of theatre patrons like dominos.

One of the least expected supporters of satire this year is Nintendo. In description, Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball is a mini-game collection with peculiar microtransactions. In its context, it is a deep, cutting, and almost sad joke. On the dawn of introducing microtransactions to their own games with Mario Golf: World Tour, Nintendo introduces you to Rusty Slugger, video games’ first Jon Lovitz.

Rusty Slugger is a divorcee cartoon dog. He has a pack of overly energetic pups, a struggling sports store and a head full of loving memory for baseball, the game he used to play professionally. He longs for the yesteryears and whimpers about the state of the world today, not only his marital woes but also the kids and their video games, which he’s forced to sell. By hearing out his sorrows of the changing industry, you can dull the sting of microtransactions, haggle discounts for each mini-game and save a significant amount of your actual cash by doing so.

See also: Let’s All Save These Historic Works Of Feminist Game Making From Obscurity

At face value, Real Deal Baseball is okay, a quirky little thing with solid baseball activities and a strange framing. But if you assume that it isn’t baseball Nintendo’s sorrowful about changing—if this glass-eyed dog is an avatar to dish out woes on behalf of a company you’re ultimately squeezing discounts from—then it’s suddenly a sublime farewell letter. Similarly, Tomodachi Life hovers between a social sim and a straight-up parody of The Sims, a reductive assessment that the reason most people play the successful series is to watch their avatars engage in sheer stupidity more than prosper in their virtual life.

These games are all very different. Very different codes of humour, very different styles of play: South Park being foul about Taco Bell and Kardashians; Jazzpunk’s relentless goofballs; Rusty Slugger’s smallest violin. But what they all share en masse is that in order to achieve comedy in a space where agency steals the ability for comic timing, they have to design the game from the gag up. They can’t add the funny in post.

We’re moving beyond a point where you can just have a more quotable first-person shooter. The jokes are built right in like game mechanics, whether it’s Stick of Truth’s writing-first mantra or Octodad and Goat Simulator’s disastrous engines of schadenfreude. This is not the world for ClayFighter. These games mean being more clever about design choices and the jokes they’re paired to. It also means sacrificing a traditional game on the altar. But moreover, it’s about telling the people who don’t like jokes that they may have wasted their money—a sweet punchline for those of us drawn indelibly toward comedy.

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The Top 6 Video Games Of 2014

While 2014 hasn’t been a banner year for many (e.g. law enforcement, Congress, the CIA, etc.), it has produced an excellent crop of video games. The industry itself continues to grow, with revenues rising eight percent to an estimated $81.5 billion worldwide.

Here are some of games that made 2014 a year worth remembering.

Hearthstone

Category: Most Unnecessary Huge Success By A Game Studio That Already Controls Players’ Souls
Cost: Free (though featuring addictive in-game purchases) for PC, Mac, iPad, Android tablets

Relative to how most games are developed, Hearthstone was basically an afterthought. Blizzard initially created “Team 5” to assess targets of opportunity that larger teams couldn’t get to, then dissolved it, leaving Eric Dodds and Ben Brode to create Hearthstone. Two people! Now the game boasts over 20 million players, making it another phenomenal success for Blizzard—as if the company needed additional control of players’ lives and pocketbooks.

Hearthstone is an online collectible card game, something like Magic: The Gathering. It’s also very easy to pick up, with rules that aren’t hard to understand, completely unlike Magic: The Gathering. It’s also free to play and has a beautiful, intuitive UI (again, totally unlike M:TG). Players play against each other online in one of two modes.

Released in March of this year, the game has already received two expansions: Curse of Naxxramas in July and Goblins vs. Gnomes this December. Curse added 35 new cards and a four-part single-player adventure, while Goblins vs. Gnomes added 143 new cards.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

This dragon is probably not interested in chatting

Category: Most Dialogue Trees
Cost: $60, for PC, XBox One, XBox 360, PS4, PS3

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the latest effort from BioWare, the game studio that also brought you Baldur’s Gate II and the Mass Effect series. By all accounts, DA:I is absolutely massive in every way you’d want a fantasy RPG to be. There’s a huge world to explore, lots of different story options, tons of lore, dozens of side quests, and so forth.

Of course, being a BioWare joint, it has a lot of dialogue trees, because every character has a lot to say about a lot of things. Sort of like real life! Only less insipid, because all the characters in DA:I have professional writers. So, better.

Transistor

Category: Best Talking Sword
Cost: $20, for PC, Mac, PS4

A singer without a voice pulls a talking sword out of a man’s chest and is soon attacked by robots in a giant, beautiful, sci-fi dystopia. If that doesn’t grab you, maybe the above trailer will.

Transistor has a cool story, a female protagonist (which pretty much all forms of media could use more of until it’s no longer notable and just the norm), is pretty to look at, has a killer soundtrack, and interesting gameplay (this review has a pretty good breakdown of how that works).

Shovel Knight

Shovel your way to victory!

Category: Best Callback To The Platformers You Grew Up With
Cost: $15 for PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo 3DS, Wii U

If card games, AAA fantasy RPGs and action RPGs aren’t your thing, maybe you’d enjoy some old school platforming. Shovel Knight, the outcome of a Kickstarter campaign, has the look of classic old school side-scrolling games like Mega Man and Super Mario. You’re also a knight with a shovel, which is perhaps a selling point only to me.

Beyond its nostalgic look, Shovel Knight’s game mechanics are also quite solid and have been compared to DuckTales (i.e. the shovel is similar to Scrooge McDuck’s cane) and Dark Souls (though you don’t have lives, and instead you lose gold when you fail). As some reviewers noted, it also has a story that’s more interesting than the old NES platformers it resembles (which is to say, basically all of them).

Super Smash Bros.

Category: Best Way Of Determining Whether Mega Man Or Pac Man Would Win In A Fight
Cost: $60 for Wii U, $40 for Nintendo 3DS

Fighting game franchises tend to have very devoted fanbases, and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. claims one of the largest. The release of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U this year marks the first new entry to the franchise since 2008. The five years were worth the wait.

The latest edition of Smash Bros. boasts a deep roster of playable characters, from Nintendo cornerstones like Mario, Donkey Kong, Link, and Zelda to new contenders like Pac Man, Mega Man, and the dog from Duck Hunt (who works with the duck from Duck Hunt). Super Smash Bros. attempts, and mostly succeeds, in satisfying both the hardcore fighting game fan’s need for a deep and complex fighting game and the casual fan’s desire for fun new ways to play with their favorite Nintendo characters.

Super Time Force Ultra

Category: Best Use of Time Travel & Action Movie Callbacks and Best Game Featuring A Sony Executive
Cost: $15 for PC

So here’s a lighthearted game with a team of heroes constantly time traveling to accomplish important tasks like getting all the web plugins from the future so their boss can watch cat videos without ever needing to download new plugins. The team is composed of callbacks to action stars—like Melanie Gibson and Dolphin Lungren.

Each character on the team has special powers, and you play each level as one character at a time until they die, then you rewind time and play as the next one, only the previous times you’ve played through the level affect subsequent run throughs. A gameplay video might make this clearer:

Super Time Force will soon be available on the PS4 and Vita. As a result, Sony executive Shuhei Yoshida is now part of Super Time Force. One hopes this makes Nintendo include Shigeru Miyamoto in the next Smash Bros. 

Images courtesy of Blizzard, BioWare, Supergiant Games, Yacht Club Games, Nintendo and Capybara Games

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Sweden’s Sexism Test For Games Is A Great Idea

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

Those social justice warriors known as the Swedes are at it again! Last year, four Swedish cinemas started indicating whether the films they screened passed the exceedingly low bar set by Bechdel Test for female representation.

Now Dataspelsbranchen, Sweden’s videogames industry organization, is considering putting a label on future games produced in the country denoting whether or not they promote gender equality. Good on Dataspelsbranchen.

See also: Call Of Duty Doesn’t Understand Grief—But Who Does?

It’s not yet clear what such a policy would entail. In the case of narrative fiction, the Bechdel Test sets a relatively clear and objective standard: a work must have at least two named female characters who speak to one another about something other than a man. But the interactive nature of videogames complicates matters.

Scripted vs. Interactive Entertainment

How does a test measure the gender equality of a game in which the narrative and interactions are partially determined by individual players? Should the gender diversity of developers be factored into a game’s score? Dataspelsbranchen has only just received grant funding to study these questions; answers will come later.

For more stories about videogames and culture, follow @killscreen on Twitter.

But this story isn’t really about labels. The debate over what constitutes a “game that promotes gender equality” is one that needs to be had, even if unanimity will never be reached. Assuming the eventual Swedish label follows the lead of the Bechdel test and sets a low bar, it will be more useful when discussing the state of the industry than when choosing a game to play.

Discussions of sexism in videogames currently focus on the anecdotal: one can easily sense that something is wrong, that a great many games simply use women as props and therefore fail the most rudimentary of eye tests. But the eye test is of limited discursive use, particularly in the face of relentless online pressure. Film critics can point to the fact that 57% of films fail the Bechdel Test as an indictment of their industry; games critics would benefit from having a clear figure.

See also: Sexting With Robots With Kara Stone

Labels have as little power as the glue that affixes them to boxes. You can choose to buy a game even if the label warns of violence. Likewise, Dataspelsbranchen’s label would not preclude you from buying a game that does nothing to promote gender equality.

A label is a minimal imposition on the consumer in service of a larger goal. Sweden’s label will not reflect the quality of the work—artistically, narratively, or technically—but it will contain information worth knowing, information we should have known for some time now.

More From Kill Screen

For more stories about videogames and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

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Before Slack And Flickr, Tech Pioneer Stewart Butterfield Played Video Games

Editor’s Note: This was originally published by our partners at Kill Screen

If you ever want proof that games write the first draft of history, you need to look no further than the last ten years of Stewart Butterfield’s work. His early experiments with an MMO called Game Neverending yielded a kernel of a photo-sharing app. It was called Flickr, and sold to Yahoo in 2005.

Then in 2009, Butterfield founded Tiny Speck, pulling in game vets like Journey’s Robin Hunicke and Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahasi, to launch a browser-based online game called Glitch. Beloved by many—but ultimately not enough—fans, Glitch shuttered in 2012.

For more stories about videogames and culture, follow@killscreen on Twitter.

But again a seed grew. Butterfield transitioned some of Tiny Speck’s staff, alongside some hard-learned lessons about onboarding new users to build a commercial communication tool that Tiny Speck had used to build Glitch. Last August, Slack was launched as an “email killer” and a way to transform how businesses talk and do work together. (We use it at Kill Screen, in fact.)

Here, in an edited transcript, Butterfield opens up about his early game-playing roots, teaching new players the basics, and why games are “too f—ing hard.”

A BASIC Beginning

When I was a little kid, I used to program in BASIC and make simple text-based games. One was Dungeons and Dragons-ish and another was a super boring basketball game. You could pass, shoot, run and say the trajectory. These were games for myself and my friends mostly.

I just thought that games were awesome. I was a big player of Galaga, but on the Mac, I played Adventure, and there was this one Indiana Jones character. Pitfall! It was Pitfall. There was a super fucked-up one where there were spinning knives. Drol!

I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia. Our computer was in the living room. I don’t recall why my parents got us a computer but I think it was for accounting. Also, computers were supposed to be good for kids.

See Also: Die, Email, Die! A Flickr Cofounder Aims To Cut Us All Some Slack

Early on, I was into multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and MOOs (MUDs, object-oriented), but mostly I loved online communities. It was absurd and surreal when I first got online in the 90s. I started university and got my first Unix account.

Over ten years, I saw Usenet and IRC and a lot of forums and stuff but also the rise of blogs and was fascinated with the kinds of interactions they had with each other.

The intention wasn’t so much a game, but we were using a game the way that people use bridge or golf for pretext for socializing. I remember looking at my dad, who’s a big bridge player, but doesn’t like playing with the computer because it’s boring. But he always wouldn’t ask his friends to to hang out.

Gaming = Interaction

So the context of play is much more interesting sometimes than the game itself. You’re using some part of their brain for strategizing, estimating what the other people at the table know. I don’t play golf, but it’s a context for an experience to go on a walk with friends. Of course, there’s golf for its own sake, but really it’s the game plus the interaction.

In 2002, Butterfield co-founds Ludicorp to begin development on Game Neverending, a massively multiplayer game. It never launches, but sets the stage for Flickr.

Game Neverending was an open-ended way to interact but to have those interactions be much more text-based. This was before Second Life technologically. Second Life was about 3D which we felt like was a distraction. We never considered it. Besides, we wanted it to be playable in a browser. There was Flash but Flash wasn’t what it was now.

It’s often said that Flickr was a feature of the game, but to be honest, not really. Flickr was in the beginning of 2002 and we built a prototype, but it was at the all-time lowest period for consumer-facing web stuff. This was after 9/11 and WorldCom and Enron and the dot-com bubble, even though we felt like we had a successful prototype with a couple thousand users. We were optimistic but felt like to finish it, Flickr would’ve taken a year. There was no way and it got to the point that the person at Ludicorp who got paid was the one who had kids. We had to get to market faster.

So we completely switch gears. The first version of Flickr was based on the game. People would send messages back and forth in the same way the way the chat it did with Game Neverending. Instead of inventory, there were places to store photos.

Raising more than $17m, Glitch hopes to fill in the gaps left by Game Neverending. It’s a fantasy world populated by people encouraged to collaborate and build communities. It closes after a year.

By the time we started Glitch, we were all a lot more experienced and hardware was 90% cheaper. The amount and quality of open source software was so far beyond what previously existed as well as the quality of the public’s computers. More people were online. Everything had moved forward by an order of magnitude in 7 years.

Some of the differences between Glitch and Game Neverending were basic. Game Neverending was like a MUD as you didn’t have a position in space. Everything was a point. In any text-based adventure game, you send N to go north and you didn’t have a discrete position.

Glitch was a side-scroller and had some basic physics. That made it completely different, because there was motion. Game Neverending was so lightweight by comparison.

The thing that seemed unfulfilled in Game Neverending was we what we ultimately gave people. Game Neverending was a stupid game and so was Glitch in the end. Neither were good as games, but they were good as a way for people to interact to create a type of play. With Glitch, there were more people playing it and by the end it was decent, but not great.

See Also: Flickr Co-Founder Launches Glitch Game

What was fun was the amount of expression people had. For example, there were “quoins” floating around you and (you could) interact with them. So there was this dynamic known as “quoin sharding” where if you were near me, you’d get a piece of it. The closer you were to the coin, the more you’d get and this laser beam thing would shoot from me to you. It was really fun with a dozen people making a swarm. It was very collaborative and for most of the time, it was a cool place to hang.

Here’s the thing we took from Glitch. In games, there’s a user experience that is critical. Unless it’s completely derivative, the first thing you want to do is help them understand what the possible moves are and the context for making them. But imagine the tutorial. You have to figure out what’s possible and that was something we worked incredibly hard because it was so new and different. Glitch had no combat multiplayer and had this cutesy veneer. There were so many strikes against us.

But on the other end of the spectrum, you had FarmVille and FishVille and so on where it was what kind of game it was and then the particular flavor of that one. If you like real-time strategy games or shooters and I say, “This is a World War 2- themed shooter,” you’re like 70% of the way there. You have a sense of what you’re supposed to do, how are these controls mapped, and what are the qualities.

But for something completely different, people have to cross a big barrier. They’re investing time.

See Also: Learning From Flickr’s Co-founders On Their Way Out of Yahoo

The big design challenge with Glitch was prioritizing what you had to get introduced to. We had people playing the game who’d never played a side-scroller. The arrow keys and the space bar seem so obvious, but people needed to be taught that. Then there’s the introduction to the fundamental mechanics like energy and mood.

There’s also not spending that initial time doing tutorials. We had a bunch of players that volunteered to be a greeter and probably 75% of the new players assumed the greeters were bots. We had people trying to figure out where they type so it was a range of needs. Ultimately, it was more pacing and prioritization. Some people are less comfortable. Some people wanted to skip through that stuff.

We did the same process for Slack, even though it was much simpler conceptually. It was group messaging for teams. The customers know 70% of what they’re supposed to do.

Overall, I think I’m done with games. They are too hard to make, especially with what I wanted. I wanted to play from the bottom up rather than top down, like in Sim City. But collective decision making—that’s just too fucking hard.

In its first 24 hours, Slack receives more than 8000 signups. That number stands now at 200,000 daily active users. Slack just announced its first acquisition last month of a collaborative document-editing tool called Spaces.

This interview has been edited for content and length. As told to Jamin Warren.

More From Kill Screen

For more stories about videogames and culture, follow @killscreen on Twitter.

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SearchCap: Google Rolls Out Pirate Update, Bing Adds MCC, Video Games In Knowledge Graph

Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web. From Search Engine Land: Reports: Google Pirate Update Has Rolled Out This Week Last week, we reported that Google will be pushing out an update to the Google Pirate Update in the…



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Video Games Added To Google’s Knowledge Graph

Google is upping its game for gamers, now including video game information in its knowledge graph. Search queries on video games will result in a knowledge graph panel that includes details like the game’s release date, supported platforms, developers, review scores and more. In a report on…



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How Social Media Can Help You Survive The SEO Hunger Games – Business 2 Community


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How Social Media Can Help You Survive The SEO Hunger Games
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