video games

My interview with Desert Golfing developer Justin Smith by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Justin Smith (Twitter handle @manbearcar) is an interesting guy who makes interesting games. Most recently, he made the extremely interesting game Desert Golfingavailable now for iOS and Android devices.

And it really is extremely interesting, both on the surface and below. I wrote about the game for The Daily Beast, and that article is the closest I have ever come to writing a piece of New Games Journalism, as defined by Kieron Gillen a decade ago. But there were some things about the game that I wasn't quite sure about, so I reached out to its developer and we set up a short email interview. (I generally dislike email interviews, but that is usually because marketing people sanitize them. Since this was just a one-man thing, that didn't seem so bad. Plus, I hate transcribing, so it worked out.)

I used a few of the things he said in my article, but he said a bunch of things that I found fascinating that I didn't use, so here is the interview, reproduced in full (plus a few of my own thoughts about his responses):

Read More

Feminism, misogyny, and the issue of men writing about video game sexism by Alec Kubas-Meyer

I don't write about feminism or women's issues or anything like that, specifically because I'm not a woman.

There was an article on The Daily Beast last Friday about misogyny in video games. It's an interesting article, though it misses some things. It's an issue that I've considered pitching to the Beast on multiple occasions. I've even written out that pitch a couple of times, but I've never sent it. Why? Because I'm not a woman.

Even writing this feels like some sort of hack job, because I can only comment as an outsider looking in. The #Yesallwomen movement earlier this year was proof of that fact. I don't know what it's like to be a woman, and I can't pretend to understand what it's like to literally receive death threats for being one.

Read More

Thirty Flights of Loving, Portal, and a celebration of short-form video games by Alec Kubas-Meyer

In the time it took me to come up with this first sentence, I could have played through Blendo Games’s Thirty Flights of Loving twice. Thirty Flights of Loving is the sequel to 2008’s Gravity Bone, a freely available game that I played more than a few times back in the day, and it shares a lot in common with that game (a copy of which is included in Thirty Flights’s executable). But fascinatingly, it feels like a step back while also being a giant leap forward. Whereas Gravity Bone had items and a basic inventory kit that served some minor little puzzles, Thirty Flights of Loving has WASD and a “Use” key. It’s shockingly simplistic, but it has aspirations of grandeur. 

The game’s trailer bills itself as a “video game short story,” and that’s a brilliant way to describe it. It’s a jam-packed fifteen minutes, full of intrigue, chaos, and directed narrative. But what’s most interesting is how little of the greater narrative there is: In those fifteen minutes, a whole lot of things happen, and you the player are privy to almost none of them. The story is told without words or voices; it’s just a series of not-clearly-related events and it’s up to you to figure out what they all mean. You’re in a place. Now you’re getting into a plane. Now someone you thought was on your side is pointing a gun at your head. There’s blood everywhere.

Read More

Let's talk about E3 2014: Nintendo's Digital Event by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Ask anyone what the biggest surprise of E3 was and they will almost invariably tell you it was Nintendo's Digital Event. Nintendo had to prove to the world that the Wii U was a viable console, something that they would want in their living room to go beside their Xbox One or PS4 or whatever. Nintendo consoles have long been second boxes, something you have just to play the exclusives. Third parties have all but abandoned Nintendo for the past four generations, but Nintendo has some of the most talented developers in the world under their wing and they consistently (though infrequently) put out some of the best games. 

Read More

Let's talk about E3 2014: Sony's Press Conference by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Sony's press conference this year was always going to be a disappointment. It was impossible to really follow up last year's brilliant showing, because last year was a perfect storm of their new hardware announcement mixed with the incompetence of their competitors. With Microsoft's reasonably acceptable conference this time around, there was simply no way for Sony to crush them again. And they didn't, but that's not to say Sony didn't have a good showing, because they did... it just wasn't that good. Sony's biggest problem was length. Microsoft's conference was around 90 minutes and Nintendo's (which I'll get to tomorrow) was half that. Sony's ran nearly 2 hours, which was... too much. They showed a lot of things, but the momentum was totally lost in the middle when they began to focus on the PlayStation TV and whatnot. That was when games, games, and more games became talk, talk, and boredom. In general, the presentation could have used some serious tightening, because that could have brought it from pretty good to downright awesome. Because they were showing some pretty cool stuff.

Read More

Let's talk about E3 2014: Microsoft's Press Conference by Alec Kubas-Meyer

For most intents and purposes, E3 is over. Today is the last day, but there's not going to be much (if any) news coming out of the event, and the remaining previews could be interesting, but likely won't make any major impact on anybody's impression of the show. So let's talk about it. And let's go in order of appearance (at least for the big three). First up: Microsoft. Microsoft had a lot to prove. The Xbox One reveal was overshadowed by the always-online controversy and the way more interesting Sony conference. They stumbled out of the gate where Sony soared, and with the recent reveal of a Kinect-less system, the Xbox One seems to be less and less like the futuristic piece of hardware that the company envisioned (and that I had tepid praise for when I reviewed it back in November).

Read More

Tablet ports, smaller screens, and the 7" Aaaaa! experience by Alec Kubas-Meyer

One of the most intense video games I have ever played is Dejobaan Games’s AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. It’s a skydiving simulator of sorts, and when things start to speed up and obstacles get packed closer and closer together, it becomes a uniquely exhilarating experience. And that exhilaration is something I really haven’t gotten elsewhere. It’s gotten a semi-sequel in the form of AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome (which is easily my most anticipated VR game experience once I get my hands on an Oculus Rift), and as I learned recently, a port to mobile devices. I was looking around the Google Play store and saw that AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – Force = Mass X Acceleration was on sale for 99 cents. Generally, I don’t buy or play games on either my phone or tablet, but I figured I should make an exception here. So I booted up my first generation Nexus 7 and downloaded the game. 

It’s much like I remember, except instead of WASD+mouse it uses tilt controls, which is an interesting choice. Using an accelerometer as the primary method of control can definitely work, but unlike, say, Ridiculous FishingAaaaa! Requires a person to be static and also be hunched over. (The device has to be essentially flat horizontal for the tilts to be read correctly.) Ridiculous Fishing, because it’s only concerned with one axis of motion, can be held any which way, and while playing in a car is not ideal, it’s doable. Aaaaa! Is not. The extra axis being tracked means that any and all little bumps will register and the levels that require perfect precision are nigh unplayable. That being said, even though the tilt stuff is generally good and I’ve gotten into the flow of it a few times, it never feels quite as fluid as WASD. I have somewhat shaky hands, and I felt like a lot of deaths weren’t because I didn’t move in time but because the game didn’t accept my input in time. On the PC, I always felt like it was my own fault. Here, I could blame the device.

Read More

Infamous: Second Son, black-and-white morality, and the awkwardness of being an evil “hero” by Alec Kubas-Meyer

In Infamous: Second Son, you play a mass murderer named Delsin. You can play as a not-mass-murderer, but then you’re not playing the game right (it is called “Infamous,” after all). This is a game about a guy who gets super powers that allow him to kill pretty much every human he comes across with fire missiles that he shoots from his hands. It’s a totally awesome feeling, and the game is basically the epitome of a power fantasy, but there’s a problem with that, because the narrative tries to paint Delsin as something of an antihero when he is a straight up villain. The actual “villain” in the game is a woman (which is rare and kind of cool, in and of itself) who tortures people using her own superpowers. Sure, that isn’t cool, but the thing is, she’s not the one wantonly launching herself up into the air and killing dozens of civilians at a time. Delsin's doing that. And while it’s super cool looking and uses all sorts of fancy particle effects that show people why they should buy into the current generation of video game consoles, that’s you, the player, killing dozens of civilians (there’s a combo counter in the upper left hand corner that tells you for sure) at a time.

But you’re still the good guy.

Read More

AI partners, stealth problems, subpar shooting, and ludonarrative interference in The Last of Us by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Why is it that, in The Last of Us, enemies can walk through Ellie’s crouching character model without noticing her or Joel? Because video games.

When I complained at length a couple months back about the painfully stupid line, “You can stealth your way through this, but I know that’s not your style,” I intentionally neglected to mention one of the biggest reasons it bothered me: because for someone whose MO is apparently “shoot first, ask questions later,” Joel is a pretty terrible shot. My complaints were focused on the narrative and character reasons why it made no sense, but now it’s time to talk about the gameplay.

Read More

Ludonarrative dissonance and ludonarrative interference: An introduction by Alec Kubas-Meyer

It’s time for me to finally explain two topics that I have offhandedly mentioned on multiple occasions (and will talk about a whole lot more in the future): ludonarrative dissonance and ludonarrative interference. But before we talk about them, let’s talk about BioshockBioshock’s release in 2007 was a milestone for video game narratives. It was a console shooter that said things and made points.  It had choices (even if the black and white nature of the Little Sister harvesting decisions wasn’t all that compelling) and it commented on the nature of player interaction with a game. Plus, it was basically the sequel to Atlas Shrugged (if John Galt’s weird pure-capitalist society hidden in the mountain was a modern-ish Atlantis). And since it was critiquing Ayn Rand’s philosophies, it had to be smart. (I mean, not really. A monkey pointing to 2008 on a calendar would be making a pretty compelling argument for some regulation of industry, although Bioshock was released before the economy blew up but that’s not the point. I digress.) It also received some serious academic-style criticism in a way that few games before (or after, to be honest) had.

And I find it ironic that one of the most enduring critical analyses of the game also missed the game’s most interesting hook.

Read More

Twists and tricks, or lack thereof: Gone Home's most surprising element by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Last week, I discussed the final episode of True Detective, specifically the fact that creator Nic Pizzolatto hadn’t made a show that was trying to outsmart the viewer. From start to finish, True Detective follows a logical progression and who followed it from week to week would get to the end and never feel like they had been tricked. And in that way, Gone Home feels like the True Detective of video games. It’s not trying to trick anybody. It’s just a simple story about why a girl who goes home and finds that her family has disappeared and/or left her alone. The narrative path that leads the player from beginning to end is much more linear than I expected (though not in a bad way), and the ultimate answer to the driving question (where is her sister, Samantha?) can be answered within half an hour of booting the game up, even though it takes four or five times as long to actually see it through.

And in a way, I found that somewhat disappointing. As the actual reveal appears, the game fades to black, and I was shocked that it was over. It seemed so sudden, but the reason it seemed sudden was because I had been expecting it the whole time. For the narrative that’s being told, it was the only way to end. It’s not like the family was going to come home and suddenly it’s something else. It’s a game about solitude and loneliness. (That being said, Gone Home is canon with the Bioshock franchise, and if Booker DeWitt time-warped and destroyed the house or something, that would have been kind of amazing.)

But still.

Read More

Continues, checkpoints, punches, puzzles, and what Super Mario 3D World could learn from Rayman Legends by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The single worst decision made in the development of Super Mario 3D World was whatever it was that led to pooling together everybody’s lives in the multiplayer mode. In the various co-op New Super Mario Bros. games, each player had their own number of lives, and that was that. Nobody's failings hurt any other players. I liked that, because I am significantly better at Mario games than all of my friends (the majority of whom don’t play video games and none of whom play platformers). So I would build up my store of lives to use for the later levels where having a store of lives matters and playing with others wouldn’t do affect that (unless they jumped on my head over a pit, but while that’s rage-inducing, it’s also kind of funny). That’s not the case in Super Mario 3D World, and it’s awful. For anyone interested in actually finishing that game, playing with a bunch of non-game players will actively impede your progress. It’ll be fun for the most part, because players with others is an inherently joyful thing, but when the difficult levels come up, their cute inability to land even basic jumps becomes maddening, because every time they die, you watch your own ability to progress drop down.

Read More

My upsetting disappointment with The Last of Us's visuals, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Ryse: Son of Rome, and the imperfections of current generation graphics by Alec Kubas-Meyer

I’m upset at myself. When I finally booted up The Last of Us, I did so under unfair circumstances. Since getting a PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in November, I have been spending a lot of my gaming time on the current gen systems. Although the Wii U has comparable power to the Xbox 360 and PS3, I would argue that nothing on either system compares to Super Mario 3D World from an artistic standpoint, and that has been my go-to game lately (well, that and Rayman Legends, another game that is just mind-blowingly gorgeous). I also recently built a computer that is capable of running games like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite on very high/ultra settings.

I’ve been spoiled by the high end.

Read More

The Last of Us, the WGA awards, and thoughts on poor video game writing by Alec Kubas-Meyer

As I’m writing this, The Last of Us has just been given yet another award, this time from the Writer’s Guild of America. The last award on the list is the “Videogame Winner” for “Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing.” Impressive, right? Not really.

The problem with the WGA awards is that they can only be given to scripts written under the jurisdiction of the WGA. With film, this isn’t a major problem since there are a lot of fantastic written works being produced under that umbrella, and even if Before Midnight should have crushed the “Adapted Screenplay” category, Her was as well written as anything that came out in 2013.

Not so in the land of video games. The Last of Us was up against four other games, each of them well into their respective franchises:

Read More

Ridiculous Fishing, The Tribez, and thoughts on single-player endgames by Alec Kubas-Meyer

I have a tendency to start off articles with uncontroversial statements. I’m only realizing this now, but it’s important to let people know where you’re coming from. And sometimes I have to start off with controversial statements or I’m making controversial claims. (And by controversial, I mean something irrelevant like “This popular movie is silly!” and not like “Censorship is awesome!” But I digress.)

I like Ridiculous Fishing.

Read More