Desert Golfing And The Rejection of Endings

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I’ve written previously in brief about Desert Golfing, a recent intriguing mobile game. It’s a simple game where the player swings a ball across a desert into holes, a ticker keeping score all the while. The game’s escalating difficulty is accompanied by surprises in the desert and the player’s continuing mastery of the physics and control of the ball. It’s by no means the “best iPhone game of 2014” (it’s likely that’s Threes!, which spawned a legion of imitators) but a recent patch solidified its place as one of the most interesting, given credit by its inclusion as a Nuovo Award finalist for the annual 2015 Independent Games Festival.

Desert Golfing now has two canonical “endings,” each a variation on the same. Notably, it’s not likely the creator, Justin Smith, would reach either. He considered a hole roughly 500 before the first ending to be “impossible,” meaning he was nowhere near encountering the first when it was uncovered, and the second only requires more skill. Albeit both the game’s endings specifically place emphasis on that which came before the ending, I will fulfill the cyclical problem Desert Golfing addresses by reading its endings and the implications they raise. This piece, for what it’s worth, will presume some familiarity with Desert Golfing, meaning those who haven’t played the game should read my previous piece.


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Alex Recommends: Fantasy Zone (1986)

Fantasy Zone Flyer

“How on earth did we manage to play those games with the annoying beep-boop music on repeat?” That’s the question I was met with while discussing NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) games with a classmate of mine. It’s true classic games like “Bubble Bobble” and “Space Harrier” had tracks that looped for far too long; even games with multiple memorable themes, like “Metroid” or “The Legend of Zelda,” have 60-second loops that might extend upwards of 20 minutes, depending on your skill.

If these games had music as buoyant as Sega’s 1986 arcade classic “Fantasy Zone,” we might never complain. Though “Fantasy Zone” offers multiple versions of its core music (later offering a few less-memorable melodies) it scarcely requires the variation. Absurdly upbeat, “Fantasy Zone” offers a light, childlike experience, widely different from other games in its genre.

Read more at The Daily Cardinal.

Depth and Premonition: Reflection on Character in Swery65’s Magnum Opus

WELCOME TO GREENVALE sign.

After the rain.

Deadly Premonition,” a game inspired by “Twin Peaks,” remains one of the gaming world’s most underplayed entries. Released in the U.S. in 2010 as a budget title with mediocre box art, its often hideous graphics, and its mixed reviews running the gamut from “pretty close to perfect” to “awful in nearly every way,” the mystery-as-life-sim title has almost been washed from gaming’s history.

I, however, happen to know several of its most adamant fans—and not because I’ve searched for them. A strong undercurrent of devotion surrounds “Deadly Premonition” and an appreciation stands for its surreal, socially awkward, tragic protagonist FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan. None of these traits are liable to be called his “primary state” at the start of the game. These are visions of the York we will come to know, a foreshadowing of his arc. Rather, York at the start of the game is idiosyncratic, confident and probably too smart for his own good.

In the first scene, York loses his cell phone and laptop. His repeated jabs at Greenvale, the game’s setting, as being set back in the “Middle Ages” wash over the player, distancing York from someone who can turn off their console and begin text messaging friends right away. But York is cut off from the outside world in Greenvale. These links to the outside world are lost for good after their inclusion at the beginning of the game—when York reports to the FBI, he must do so by landline, and when he writes summaries of the case thus far, he must write them on a typewriter.

Read more on The Daily Cardinal’s website.

In Which I Leave My Timeline To Denounce Gamergate.

A war on the people who have the audacity to make budget-priced or free, independent games that represent characters other than grizzled white dudes has been ongoing since August. Their games push back against the idea that games must be power fantasies, whether the power in place is the ownership of a vehicle worth millions or being an individual assassin striking terror in the hearts of the orcs of Middle Earth. Most, if not all, of these games are pretty easy to acquire, run on your college laptop, and cost $20 or less.

This hate campaign goes by the name #GamerGate. The movement was primarily founded in two events; the harassment and revealing of personal information of game developer Zoe Quinn (“Depression Quest”) regarding her supposed impropriety in “attaining press through personal relationships”—which has been debunked, though persists in a “Five Guys, Burgers and Fries” meme you can see perpetuated even in our own State Street location—and an article by games editorialist Leigh Alexander proclaiming the death of the “gamer” identity. The latter led to the creation of the #GamerGate hashtag by Adam Baldwin of the cast of “Firefly.”

Some claim that the movement is about the “contempt for the audience” this rejection of the “gamer” identity shows, but it seems to ignore sites like Giant Bomb that decried “gamer” as a marketing term invented in the early 2000s. Instead, it comes after those who entreat game developers and writers to offer experiences to new audiences. Many now claim it’s a movement about “corruption in the games industry,” but it seems to ignore sites that are taking marketing deals from Electronic Arts or Microsoft; rather they are coming after those who dare to publish “social justice oriented” articles that “push an agenda.” The agenda: it would be cool if LGBTQ and nonwhite characters appeared in more games.

Read more on the Daily Cardinal’s website.

An Extended Tomodachi Life

A conversation between residents of Tomodachi Life.

I’ve been playing Nintendo’s new life sim, “Tomodachi Life,” since a couple weeks after its release in June. To summarize, the game gives the player use of the Mii creation system—the same one used to make the avatars who populate Wii Sports—to create residents in an apartment complex on a resort island. The game encourages you to create your friends, your family, or your favorite celebrities. A handful have signed on to provide their likenesses; official Wayne Brady, Zendaya and Christina Aguilera Miis are easy to find online, and a commercial displays Shaq and Shaun White Miis tasting some of the food in the game.

Interaction is simple; the residents have needs, and by tapping the screen to navigate menus, you can visit their apartments to feed them (a major part of the game is giving them different food experiences to determine their favorites and help them level up, granting them new activities), give them advice on making friends or romantic partners, dress them in outfits ranging from pretty attractive dresses and tops to samurai armor and hamster suits and among a few other things, redecorate their apartments.

Most of the actual play of “Tomodachi Life” is in allowing the residents to perform on their own. The relationship system in “Tomodachi Life” is well developed; each Mii has a personality type (loosely linked to the Myers-Briggs types, although softened somewhat) and can have a noted sweetheart and best friend. The player mostly can’t control whom the residents develop feelings for or with whom they hang out, though occasionally the player can steer them. These established relationships can vary. Couples can get married and have kids, or break up (including married couples), best friends can get in fights and some residents keep friends they never really got along with at all.

Read more on The Daily Cardinal’s website.

The World of Desert Golfing

Desert Golfing: Hole 4

Some might say that beginning my residency as The Daily Cardinal’s video games columnist with an editorial on a mobile game is inauspicious. But amidst the several titles entangling me, none pull as much focus as the stark “Desert Golfing.” Described by iOS developer Adam Atomic (“Canabalt,” “Hundreds”) as “the ‘Dark Souls’ of ‘Angry Birds’”—perhaps the most absurd form of description, akin to the constant ringing question begging, “When will video games have their “Citizen Kane” moment?,” whatever that means—it is a spare experience that closely evokes the beloved RPG’s unforgiving indifference.

The game’s presentation is flat and hot; a light brown sky is delineated against a rough and imposing dark orange landmass. Like a construction paper collage, the angular hills defy the often-natural rolling dunes. Other times, the land towers above the small white ball at impossible angles, revealing the constructed nature of each hole. When the first prop appears beyond simple land and hole flags, it does so without fanfare, yet it simultaneously serves as a secret to be uncovered and a fascinating invigoration, an omen that, yes, there is more to discover in this vast wasteland.

The game presents itself in the iTunes store with a short haiku: “To see a world in a bunker of sand/And a heaven in a wild cactus,/Hold infinity in the pocket of your shorts,/And eternity in Desert Golfing.” It appears to be near endless. At hole 2172, I have yet to feel a need for the game to end. The furthest hole I can find a peer to have reached is hole 2884.

Read more on The Daily Cardinal’s website.

I’m Flushing My Animal Crossing Town.

I walk through my little fruit groves, perfect oranges and succulent peaches hanging from beautiful green trees. My town’s fountain is surrounded by flowers, and a bridge has nearly finished reconstruction just nearby. Before I cross the river, I stop in at Brewster’s Cafe. He mutters, “Coo to see you.” I sit across from my old friend, knowing that Mayor Alex isn’t going to see Brewster again.

I offer to work part-time for him one last time, and I question whether or not I should close my town. And as I work the counter, my favorite resident, Freya, asks for her mocha. I question my move again. And then, of course, my next customer is Samson.

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Samson. I’m so sick of Samson. I’ve had Samson in three separate villages throughout my Animal Crossing career over the last ten years, and he’s always been one of my least favorite villagers. I’ve done everything in my power to get him to leave. And then I remember that I’ve been trying to get Camofrog to leave too, and then I remember that I’ve had two villagers in the last six months that I’ve wanted to keep, and they remain two of four villagers I want to keep at all.

I love the layout of my town. It’s very convenient, and leaves plenty of room for an orchard. But my two favorite villagers, Twiggy and Papi, both left without warning during my absences. I’ve had a string of bad luck. So I could either wait eight months for these villagers I dislike to move out (of course, if another Gwen, or Broffina, or Limberg, or Hans were to move in, that would be worse still!) or I can restart and hope for the best.

My girlfriend is storing my stuff. It’s nice that Animal Crossing New Leaf makes it so easy to store things. And I’ll miss the progress I’ve made. It’s modest, to be sure, but I can pretty much do what I like. I just need new neighbors. Some people might point this out as a flaw with the game; MOST of the villagers are “not awesome,” so why do I praise the relationships in the game?

Well, I think most of the villagers are pretty rad, but even aside from that, even many of the most reviled villagers have their fans. The Tumblr community assured me that people do in fact like Hans and many of my least favorite villagers. I just can’t get past them.

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Like everything in life, sometimes you just need a change of scenery. Goodbye, Grænvale. I’ll miss your tall fruit trees and your beautiful rivers. But, well, I certainly won’t miss Samson.

Why We’re Recording a “Game of the Year” Podcast

I sit down to write this listening to the soundtrack of my podcast’s past Game of the Year, Fez. Disasterpeace’s work on the game is as stunning as I remember; melodies are accented and transition in register and dynamic range with expertise. Fez was a game primarily about learning, but also about nature, science fiction, the life cycle, space, God, loneliness, community, the Internet, childhood, accidents, and its designer, Phil Fish.

I regret how little time we spent discussing Fez on last year’s Game of the Year podcast. Most of the panel had spent less time with it than myself and were complacent to crown it, preferring to debate the runner-up spot between Mass Effect 3 and Journey. An hour of impassioned anecdotes, defenses, analyses, and even attacks defined Journey’s #2 placement. The same was true of 2011’s Game of the Year Deliberations, consisting of a battle between The Witcher 2 and Bastion before crowning Saints Row: The Third.

It’s not that I dispute these choices; Saints and Fez were “my” games. But the process of discussing Game of the Year is focused upon relating to people’s experiences. That’s why we put out a podcast rather than writing a lengthy feature; essays about these games can be written outside of this context, but assessing individual experiences and relating to each other as a collaborative group can only be accomplished through conversation. We failed to engage upon our most beloved titles, and I resolve to correct that issue this year.

What we’ve come up with is a verifiable fleet of lovable games to represent the best of 2013. They represent a diverse spread of experiences possible with the medium; from minimal, humanist storytelling, to innovation in both storytelling and gameplay, to pure excellence in a known format, the games selected struck out to our panel as especially vibrant and viable. With the possible exception of StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, the expansion to the incredible Wings of Liberty, each could stand as an effective introduction to games.

Perhaps most meaningfully, I look at this list and have no idea which title will stand apart as our Game of the Year, inspiring me to believe we’ll have some amazing conversation.

And there’s still so many great games we’re not talking about, simply because they didn’t jump out at us quite as much as these 25 (not that there was a hard limit.) We’re not talking about Gunpoint, despite the fact that it reevaluates stealth design and excels in creating combat mechanics with personal weight that reflect their main character. We’re not talking about Guacamelee, even though it’s a very well-designed game that reflects gamer culture the way Borderlands 2 strove to achieve. We’re not talking about Studio Ghibli’s entry point into video games, Ni No Kuni, just because none of us had time to play it this year.

So, when our Game of the Year Deliberations come out, and we’ve reached our final top ten list, take it all with a grain of salt. The ultimate list part of this process is relatively arbitrary; it’s really about engaging with why we’ve chosen these games.

GAME OF THE YEAR 2014 NOMINEES

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Antichamber

Bioshock Infinite

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Depression Quest

Divekick

DmC: Devil may Cry

Dota 2

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Fire Emblem: Awakening

Gone Home

Grand Theft Auto V

Metro: Last Light

Nintendoland

Papers, Please

Pikmin 3

Pokémon X/Y

Rogue Legacy

Saints Row IV

StarCraft II: Heart Of The Swarm

Super House of Dead Ninjas

Super Mario 3D World

The Last of Us

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Stanley Parable

Tomb Raider

Hey Everybody, It’s Tuesday

…And a lot of us wish we were hearing that voice on the Giant Bombcast. That voice belongs to Ryan Davis, our host. I never met Ryan, but the realization came yesterday that, between all the Quick Looks, Bombcasts, and livestreams I’ve watched, I’ve probably spent more time with Ryan than most of my closest friends. I decided it’d be worth my time to scrawl some of my thoughts below.

 

I only know Ryan through his media, his Twitter, and his still-wonderful Spotify summerjams playlist. But if I learned anything in my efforts to host a podcast as well as Ryan, it’s that the best way to create natural chemistry on the show is to just be your damn self. Ryan didn’t shy away from sharing weird personal stories and feelings with the Giant Bomb community. I’ll never, ever forget the N.A.R.C. story; the cake-sitting story; the stories about Anna not being allowed to play his Ms. Pac-Man machine too often because she’d get excruciatingly mad; the extended Disneyland drinking story. I laughed endlessly at all of these, and I realize now how intimately he shared himself with his community.

 

A lot of people have described feelings that share a lot of what I feel towards Ryan Davis. The words aren’t enough; grief is like that. But I wanted to express one facet of Ryan’s brilliance that I haven’t seen noted.

 

Ryan had a deep love for video games; it’s why he was, in equal measure, so excited for Saints Row The Third and so downtrodden about Epic Mickey. But what’s fallen through the wayside is how much love he had for the people who made games. Most people consider game development from a superstar angle; the desire is to get the Peter Molyneuxs, Ken Levines, and Ed Boons of game development. And Ryan certainly celebrated the lead creative forces in the industry; one listen through of the brilliant conversation he led between Jon Blow and Cliff Bleszinski a couple weeks ago will show that.

 

But Ryan had so much love and respect for people at all levels of game development. If John Drake of Harmonix PR is a superstar, it’s because Ryan, as a good friend, has elevated him to that status. The story of game developers like Brad Muir, Dave Lang, Max Temkin, and so many more take an important step through their friendships with Ryan. Some of it comes along with fierce loyalty to friends; certainly, Ryan’s love for Rich Gallup, Greg Kasavin, and other longstanding friends survived for years. But rewatch Building the Bastion; even if Greg leads the demos, Ryan constantly asks questions of the other devs on the couch with total and complete excitement and attention. Ryan so enjoyed telling the unsung stories of game development, and those close relationships with the friends of Giant Bomb helped make brilliant collaborations like the Giant Bomb Interview Dumptruck and Polygon’s Human Angle possible. And, of course, every time a studio had layoffs, and the conversation circled around “what this means for games in development,” it would end with Ryan: “Irregardless, a lot of people lost their jobs today, and we hope they find new work soon.”

 

Rest in peace, Ryan. I love you for everything you’ve given me. Thank you.

Thoughts On “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and Character Humanization

When I saw Into Darkness about a month ago, I expected I’d enjoy something else less by this point in the summer. But, due to my failure to see some of the summer’s larger “disappointments” (again, I haven’t seen them,) Into Darkness remains my summer bummer.

 

To be blunt, large parts of the movie are still pretty cool. Aside from the moments where Dan Mindel properly conveys thematic statements through cinematography, it’s the parts where characters just talk to each other. Whether comedic or dramatic, it’s usually very, very engaging. The characters that receive focused are well executed and generally well acted. They’re snippy, funny, and have fantastic chemistry, and they’re occasionally capable of engendering some real pathos.

 

Shining amongst the examples is an early scene where Kirk winds up in a long elevator ride with Uhura. They’re about to set off on their primary mission for the film; Uhura, off-handedly, asks the captain if everything’s all right; everyone else thinks he looks kind of exhausted. Even before the tragic events that lead to the mission they’re embarking upon, Kirk was drinking himself into a stupor; Kirk has since been “put upon,” to underemphasize things. He says he’s fine.

 

Then, he doubles back to say “no, I’m not okay.” He explains that one of his beloved crew has quit and that he’s full of self-doubt and grief and has no idea what he’s doing; we’re witnessing the makings of an anxiety attack or depressive breakdown. It’s a fascinating moment in a film thus far bereft of these deeply emotional scenes. To top it all off, Kirk is arguing with Spock, who Uhura is dating at the time. She vaguely implies that she and Spock aren’t exactly sailing smoothly either. Kirk takes this as a moment for his own bravado, joking about the idea of having a lovers’ spat with Spock.

 

This is the last we will see of Kirk’s self-esteem issues, grieving, or anxiety. In fact, apart from a follow-up conversation in regards to Spock’s fight with Uhura, this is the last deep angst we’ll see out of any of our characters that doesn’t come in the form of a right hook.  Somewhere, a writer had a pathological arc for Kirk to become the bold captain we know him to be, but all traces of it but this one scene are struck from the script.

 

On the one hand, I want to congratulate them for even including a hint of that level of complexity; on the other, I chastise them for not making the more interesting film. What’s even left to beg for? Apparently, Iron Man 3 offers multiple nervous breakdowns that don’t facilitate the plot, and The Dark Knight Rises gave Christian Bale more screentime with a broken back than he got wearing a cowl. Prometheus, a film filled with ambition, made its budget back more than threefold. An ambitious, cerebral, empathetic megahit is entirely possible.

 

It’s not like J.J. Abrams is incapable of making something with heart; Super 8 is a perfect example of his repartee on full steam, without a massive budget to bog him down. And when Into Darkness abandons its more seriously interesting character arcs, it becomes a lot harder to forgive the empty plot, ridiculous fanservice, marginalization of all non Kirk/Spock/Cumberbatch characters, boring action, and truly awful ending. Delving into that stuff would require seeing the movie, and, unfortunately, I don’t plan to make that happen any time soon.

I’ll leave on a hopeful note, though. A similar note of humanity come in an early scene in which Spock accepts his oncoming (and subverted) demise. The score and cinematography aspire to the same heights Prometheus achieved last year. These short bursts of pure empathetic filmmaking reminded me of what the Star Trek film series can be; hopefully, with the somewhat unremarkable performance of Into Darkness domestically, a scaled back budget will force the Abrams understudy who takes over to really study what truly works about these first two films.