Monday, July 25, 2011

Skip Week for Cynocephaly

Yesterday, my wife and I adopted a rescue dog. That's him and he's bloody adorable! Supposedly he's all/mostly Formosan Mountain Dog or perhaps Pharaoh Hound, but since he was a rescued stray, nobody is really sure. He was hit by a car and abandoned when he was pretty young, but someone found and brought him to a vet. They were able to repair the damage to his hips and, except for a streak of white fur above a wicked scar that the ladies will totally dig, he made a total recovery. He lived with a rescue organization for a little while, until he came to be with us.

Fear not, I don't plan becoming one of those folks that regales the denizens of the Internet with "fascinating" pet tales, so this may the last strictly dog-related post. But he's the canid justification for no writing this week (plus being extremely busy at work). Although in brief, if you haven't bought Bastion yet, you really should. Two clicks here and it's done (or you can at least download the demo). And if it's that easy, what are you waiting for?


Monday, July 18, 2011


I was in Seattle last weekend for Go Play Northwest, an indie tabletop RPG convention. It was a great time and I appreciate the friends that encouraged me to go. The focus is on small RPGs with unusual mechanics, aesthetics or settings, almost always created by an individual author or small team instead a big organization like Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf. It's a scene resemblant to independent digital games in a lot of ways.

I think I've mentioned this before, but I think all digital game designers should spend time with tabletop games, both RPGs and European style board games. There's a lot to learn from them about balance, providing meaningful decisions, the marriage of theme and mechanics, etc (see my frothing adoration of the Battlestar Galactica board game, which has only increased since I finally started watching the show). So I went to GPNW as much to look for interesting designs as simply to enjoy the games.

And pleasing to say, I was not disappointed. Nearly everything I played had some interesting feature, even if the game wasn't something I'd want to play on a regular basis. But the most interesting "game" I played was Microscope by Ben Robbins (who was actually at GPNW). More akin to an improv game than most tabletop or digital games, Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. I'll try to provide a quick overview, but if it's muddling, the important thing is: the game is awesome, play it.

The players do not control any particular character or group. Rather, the game begins by selecting a very broad theme, e.g. "Howard-esque low fantasy" or "hard, near future sci-fi." After that, they establish two events that begin and end of some portion of a great historical timeline. Those bookend events can literally be anything appropriately grand, from "The Rise of the Southern Empire : The Fall of the Southern Empire" to "Mankind Develops Spaceflight : Alpha Centauri Becomes Dominant Human World." These events are written on index cards and laid on the table. The players decide whether the bookend events are considered good or bad by those looking back upon history. This decision is signified by a black or white circle on that index card. The last step is to select Adds and Bans. The players, in turn, add or prohibit specific elements given the theme. Once the players are satisfied, play begins.

Proceeding in turn, each player can add a Period, Event or Scene to the timeline. Similar to the above, these are all labeled as good or back in the perspective of history. Periods are long, distinct eras, like the Renaissance in western history. Events occur within a Period and would be analogous to, say, the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Scenes involve actual characters during some event, like Michangelo speaking with the Pope. Scenes are defined by a Question and the Answer is either dictated by the player who created it or is role-played by all the characters until an Answer is reached. It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist.

The only additional bit of structure is each round, one player is the Lens and they define a Focus. The Focus is a broad theme for the next set of turns. It could be a person, place, trend, etc. It can be very general, but each new Period, Event or Scene must be at least tangentially related to the Focus.

That's basically it. There is no failure or set end conditions. Play continues for as long as the players wish, but two or threw hours can easily go by without dragging at all. Microscope provides just enough structure for successful collaboration and encouraging creativity, much like a good improv game. It has a very similar feeling of building upon others' ideas while still going to unexpected but excellent places.

The closest analog I could think of is the collaborative building that takes place in multiplayer Minecraft. Although the players are literally building structures, it can similarly have that very real sense of working together while still being surprised by your partners' contributions.

With "creation as gameplay" being the underpinning of some of the most successful games of all time (SimCity, The Sims, Minecraft), it seems like the notion of shared creation is ripe to be more broadly explored. Although, in keeping with the maxim of The Internet Ruins Everything, the face-to-face nature of Microscope does prevents griefing and similar derelict anonymous Internet asshole behaviours. Still, given how astonishingly satisfying just a single session of Microscope was, it feels like there are real opportunities to explore here. A digital game with similarities would allow for more persistence and easier sharing compared to the analog tabletop version, and that's just to scratching the surface.

The other thing that occurred to me was that Microscope would be a brilliant tool for world-building. Anyone creating a fictional world with a significant history, be it for a game or media, would served by considering Microscope instead of purely freeform brainstorming. I'd wager the results will take you places you'd never expect, in a good way. Even if it's just a throw-away world, it would still be great exercise for thinking in terms of connections rather than despirate events.

I can't recommended Microscope and similar indie RPGs enough (this seems like a good place to start). From a game design perspective they're often very interesting and usually, they're quite fun. And if that ain't a win-win situation, I don't know what is.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Peals of Beautiful Madness

Shadows of the Damned is exactly what the creative offspring of Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami ought to be. The hyperactive yet genuine irreverence of the former and the gore-spattered gunplay of the latter are both proudly on display. And make no mistake, the game is insane. But more of the spastic madness of No More Heroes than the surreal Killer 7. To cross the media boundary, it's equal parts Takashi Miike and Robert Rodriguez (Dusk 'Til Dawn, not Spy Kids). And god dammit, if I don't love it.

It's not flawless in its execution and I can see how its aesthetics woudn't be to everyone's taste. But I'm loving Shadows of the Damned because it delivers an increasingly rare commodity in games these days- surprise. It may sound trite, but it's so refreshing to be genuinely surprised by what Shadows of the Damned delivers. It refuses to let itself be predicted.

Coming across a giant blue demon, complete with curled goat horns and an apparatus of lamps? eyeballs? on his back, I'm expecting a setpiece combat encounter. Instead he's a hillbilly merchant of sorts, happy to chow down on your currency of white gems and vomit up items in exchange.

The "voice in your ear" companion is not the proverbial attractive-yet-aloof, supportive-yet-nagging communications officer. Instead it's a talking, floating skull named Johnson (wait for it ...). He's remniscent of Morte, except he can also transform into a burning demon-bludgeoning torch, your motorcycle and a gun called "The Boner." (Johnson, boner, skull, get it? Layers upon layers, I'm telling ya)

The game's antagonist is a demon named "Fleming" with a skull head and glowing red eyes. Except on top of his skull, is another skull. And on top of that? Another god damn skull. It's absurd, it's quite intentionally ridiculous and I never could have predicted it.

I can just sit back and let whatever insanity Suda, Mikami and the rest of Grasshopper planned wash over me. With the lion's share of AAA games this year (and the next) demanding you stare down iron sights at grey-brown ruined buildings while listening to gruff men with buzzcuts grunt about their dark past and/or the badness of their communal asses, Shadows of the Damned is an honest relief.

And that 'honest' bit is important. I want to talk about that facet of the game more, but I'd also like to play a bit more first. But thus far, the game manages to be both fantastically self-aware and irreverent without ever seeming crass. Unlike Resident Evil 4, which I could never tell if it was meant to be taken at least somewhat seriously, Shadows of the Damned knows it is absurd. And it takes every amazing liberty it can.

Oh, and the sound design/soundtrack are awesome. But with Akira Yamaoka (composer/sound design for the Silent Hill series), nothing less could be expected. As if you need another reason to be interested though, right?