The Price of Play

**I know trigger warnings are so not the thing these days. But really, this one gets kinda ugly**

Play is free. Fun. Natural—like breathing, the desire to eat (or love), or do other things that are inappropriate to write about in the blog. Except that nothing is really free, play is often not fun, and eating and that other thing have consequences that can actually make the cost prohibitively expensive. Just ask someone who ate themselves into gastric bypass or found themselves underwater without one of those pricey oxygen tanks. So what about play? We see videos of puppies playing together as soon as we they can walk, and we think, oh gee, it’s so beautiful and pure. Then we hear a story of a toddler dying because his parent locked him in a closet for 48 hours while s/he was gaming.

That’s not us though, right? That person was clearly mentally ill and if it hadn’t been games it would’ve been something else. Neglectful people are neglectful people regardless of the medium. But there is a grain of similarity between that parent and all of us who play. Perhaps it’s only as serious as choosing to play over going to a birthday party. Perhaps it’s having your significant other feed you Cheetos as you raid. Maybe it’s neglecting your own health because the precious few moments of time you have to yourself you’d rather be gaming. Or maybe it’s only a dollar, or sixty, or whatever that game cost. There is however no denying that all play has a price, and we pay. Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes it’s a little, and sometimes we pay with the things we hold most precious to ourselves, like our respect, our dignity, and our beliefs.

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Same Face Syndrome or Why Scruffy-White-Dude Protagonists Don’t Help Anyone

The face of game protagonists is looking rather generic. If you were to poll gamers as to what the average playable character looks like, chances are there would be a general consensus among the answers. It’d almost certainly be a white man. He’d likely be in his late twenties or early thirties with a hardened face that suggests he’s been carrying a lot of baggage. Chances are, we could get even more specific than that: he’d have a scruffy beard or a stubble shadow, a chiseled jaw, and brown hair. This is not to say that all protagonists look like this; of course they don’t, and there have certainly been some strong strides in diversity in games, particularly in indies. However, going off my own personal databank, the various scruffy-white-dude collages compiled on the internet like the one above, and the amusing yet rather sad montage Youtube user Rebellious Pixels created from promo footage highlighting the sheer number of similar male protagonists revealed at this year’s E3, it seems like this pervasive trend of what I like to call “same face syndrome” is following the industry into the new generation.

The concept of same face syndrome first entered my mental dictionary after accusations arose on Tumblr that Disney was reusing their CGI female character designs. After promotional pictures were leaked for Disney’s upcoming film Big Hero 6, many users were quick to point out that Honey Lemon’s physical character model looked a lot like Rapunzel . . . and that Rapunzel looks a lot like Anna who looks a lot like Else who looks a lot like their mother . . . and so on. These similarities transcend “art style” and border more on direct copy and paste, as is beautifully explained here. While I, for most cases anyway, I certainly don’t think that developers are taking protagonists and reusing their models in quite the same way Disney seems to here (I would call it “similar traits syndrome” but that’s just not as catchy), I do believe that game design is suffering from a compulsion to create characters that fit in generic boxes of “what a protagonist should look like” and “what characters sell games.” But it’s not just the industry that suffers, it’s the gamers too, and not just in the ways you might think.

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An American in Scotland or Females are too Hard

This month, I’m staying in the dorms at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland. Dundee is a beautiful city, and Abertay is an interesting university to me because they have a computer games department that focuses on the development, design, technology, and management of games. Last night, their chapter of the International Game Developers Association hosted a talk with Ed Fries, one of the developers of the Xbox. Fries talked about his early professional years and how he came to be a programmer for Microsoft working on the launch of the Xbox.

The talk was interesting, but also a bit frustrating. He was pretty focused on presenting himself as a programmer, rather than a creative person. And, he talked about how he first learned to program games by creating clones of games such as Frogger. It was his Frogger clone that first gained him the attention of and later his first job at a game company. But, of course, they had to change the game enough so that it wasn’t such a blatant rip off. As such, they decided to make it more of a medieval game where you must save the princess. But, Fries said they didn’t know how to make a female character. It was too hard. I know I should expect this type of comment. It’s not new, and he was talking about the 80’s. But, still, I was sort of blown away by his cavalier dismissal of the female character. It was too hard. So, instead of a female character, they just drew some lips to signify the female character. I think it was around this point that I looked around the room to see the ratio of male to female. And, as expected, there were only a handful of females in attendance. I didn’t stay for the Q&A session at the end, and I regret that on one hand. On the other hand, how would he have answered my question? How can we counter a defense of “we don’t know how” “it’s too hard”?  Read more »

Sunless Sea Featured

Lose your mind, eat your crew: Sunless Sea

With the tagline “Lose your mind, eat your crew”, how could you not want to give Sunless Sea a try? This narrative-horror-sea-roguelike just released on Steam and Humble Bundle, and is available on PC and Mac. The  game is currently still in early access, and the developers describe the present state of the game as “a late beta with a huge amount of story content, waiting on more content, balancing changes and final polish.”  The TL:DR version of this review is: Great atmosphere and story, can’t wait for it to actually be finished.

Sunless Sea actionSunless Sea takes place in Failbetter’s fictional Fallen London universe (like their previous games, including the browser game called Fallen London). In short, Victorian London was pulled into a vast underground cavern, and now exists in a world of supernatural beings and eternal darkness. You are a zee-captain, taking your small boat from port to port delivering goods, collecting reports, and generally getting involved where you probably shouldn’t. And this is where the game really shines.

One poster on the steam discussion board compared the game to a choose your own adventure novel, and while there are enough rpg elements and other mechanics for me to disagree slightly, it’s true that the game owes some of its best moments to the interactive narrative genre. As you explore the Unterzee on your ship various mini-stories, or storylets, as the developers call them, will open up. In most storylets, your character’s abilities will have a substantial impact on the results. Learning about and interacting with the creepy, haunted environment of the Fallen London world is by far the most engaging part of the game.

The mood of the game is done exceptionally well: the soundtrack is gorgeous and manages to balance the general horror mood against both the time period and the sea-faring aspect’ the visuals follow the hand-painted style established in Failbetter’s previous games and are absolutely gorgeous, and the the text of the game (predicted to be at over 200,000 words by the end of development) is masterfully written and truly evocative. Leaving port and sailing out into the unknown black zee with no buoys or lights to be seen made me feel quite small and alone, while returning to the relative safety of Fallen London, your home base throughout the game, was always a sign of relief.

Sunless Sea Avid Horizon

As part of your exploration, you must manage your resources, and this refers not only to the basics you might expect (food and fuel), but also to your crew’s terror level. The Unterzee is an expansive black ocean with no sun or sky, and the further you stray from the coast line the quicker your crew begin to go mad. This creates some interesting tension in the game, as I often found myself debating between a longer route that would keep me close to the shoreline- a choice that uses more fuel and supplies but keeps crew calmer- or taking a more direct route that would lead us through long stretches of maddening blackness. All choices are risky- run out of fuel and you’re dead in the water, run out of supplies and you’ll have to eat each other, max out on terror and you face mutiny or worse.

Sunless Sea Officers

I should also mention that the game seems far more balanced in terms of representation than many others out there. At the start of the game you select your form of address and a portrait for your zee-captain, but you never rigidly identify a gender. Your choices for address include madam, sir, citizen, my lady, my lord, and captain; and the game highlights that while this determines what “people” (NPCs) will call you, your actual gender is up to you. There are also a wide variety of options for avatar portrait, again providing for a wide range of expression. Your crew is equally diverse: I’ve included a picture of the crew I’ve amassed so far (though I’m still unlocking more), and there’s a fair amount of diversity in both gender and race. Finally, zailors throughout the game are referred to by both masculine and feminine pronouns, suggesting a fair amount of equality on the high zees.


Sunless Sea IronAs I mentioned previously, the game is still in early access. This has a couple important ramifications. Some of these are fairly straight-forward: I ran into a giant moth in one area of the sea, and was a little disappointed to find that he was a place-holder beastie. Likewise, it’s fairly easy to reach the edge of the map in the current build; the the designers do have a fairly clear and aggressive plan for releasing the rest of the map, but it’s not active quite yet. More important, however, is the fact that things aren’t quite balanced yet: the cost of goods is still in flux, and a recent patch broke some of the trading routes players had been using to make any sort of profit. Consequently, I’ve found it something of a struggle to get started, and have only just now begun to make any kind of significant progress in the story. Similarly, combat seems a bit rough (it’s very easy to run in to beasties that can one-shot your ship quite early in the game and with the trade routes broken it’s difficult to earn enough currency to upgrade the started ship). Nonetheless, the game is far more complete than many others in early access, and I whole heartedly recommend it.


If you’re in the mood for something a bit quieter, a bit slower-paced, something to get immersed in for a few hours, Sunless Sea will give you all of that with a dark, brooding horror vibe.


As an aside, this review was initially intended to be a power hour review, a first look after only one hour of playing. Sadly, this happened:

Sunless Sea Played Time

Perhaps that’s the best recommendation I could give.


IGotW Review: Farm for Your Life

Cost: $9.99

Platforms: PC, Mac

Rating: 8.5/10

In addition to doing reviews of new games, I decided to start reviewing my indie games of the week, for those who wanted a little more information that the quick segment I do in the podcast. If you’re anything like me, you sometimes don’t have the money or time to devote to a $60 AAA title, especially over the summer. Indie games can offer a rich, but less demanding alternative. My favorite thing about playing indie games is that you know you you’re supporting companies that 1) are trying to improve (or at least innovate… plus, most companies can’t do worse than the big companies, so wth, right?) the games industry and 2) add to the diversity of the types of games available. Without supporting indie games, we run the risk of paring the industry down to the CODs, WoWs, and Marios. Perhaps it wouldn’t be that extreme, but without indie companies we certainly wouldn’t have the game I’m reviewing this week: Farm for Your Life, by Hammer Labs Games.

Farm for Your Life is a cross between a casual farming simulation game and a zombie horror game. The gameplay is fairly simple, so if you’re looking for a complete revolution on the casual simulation game, this probably isn’t it. But that’s the appeal of these games anyway, isn’t it? It is sort of like a combination of Farmville, Don’t Starve, and Plants vs. Zombies.

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A Binder Full of NPCs: A Convergence of Thoughts on Female Protagonists in Games

So this has been mulling around in my head for a couple of weeks now, but I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and write about it. When the thought first came to me I wanted to write about Aisha Tyler’s comments about the increased numbers of female characters in video games and actually mentioned the diversity in the NPCs milling around Chicago in Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs as well as the fact that TellTale’s The Walking Dead games had Clem, who was also “probably half-Asian”. In that same response she talked about being able to make your own characters in games like Mass Effect and Fallout (but ignores the fact that the only thing that really changes about the character when you change sex in those cases is the skin) and MMORPGs (don’t get me started on the issues there with armor and jiggle physics).

While other folks have questioned Tyler’s ability to speak about games on the basis of her celebrity (and I suspect the fact that she is a nontraditionally aged black female gamer…sound like anyone else you know), I want to make it clear that I give Tyler made props as a gamer. She probably has more time (and definitely more resources) to play games than I do and I study games. My questioning of Tyler on this issue comes from a place of objectivity. Tyler has been Ubisoft’s E3 show host for 3 years running and you’d be a damned fool to think that she was going to badmouth them for making you play another emo, white guy in Watch_Dogs (despite there being lots of decorative women milling around), for them giving us another Assassin’s Creed game with multiple male assassins because women are just too difficult to include with all of their special animations and costumes and such, or for only coming within “inches” of having a playable female characters in Far Cry 4 even though the game itself is packed “to the gills” with women (like chum I suppose). Again it was all an issue with the timey-whimey stuff, because women take a lot of time and effort to animate. Unless, it seems, they are gyrating, having sex, or doing some other such important things…but maybe they just have lots of stock animation laying around for that. joincitra

The truth is that we really shouldn’t be surprised by Ubisoft’s refusal to give us a fully fleshed out, full fledged, not released on a handheld console that has a seriously limited install base female protagonist considering their past track record with female and minority NPCs even. Sadly (and ironically), Aisha Tyler is right, female characters are everywhere in videogames. On every street corner, on every stripper pole, in every trash can, and in every situation where being scantily clad could be a possibility (or not).  Read more »


Chatting in the Clubhouse: A Conversation with Stacey Deddo

Episode 81: Chatting in the Clubhouse: A Conversation with Stacey Deddo (“Save As” to download or head over to iTunes to subscribe)

While Nintendo may have it’s Treehouse (and awesome localization writer/editor, Stacey Deddo) this week she visit’s the NYMG clubhouse for a great conversation about games and breaking into the games industry. Another great show not to miss.


Power Hour Review: Valiant Hearts

War, especially historical war, in video games is generally presented in a similar way across titles.  The player assumes the role of a heroic soldier who shoots and strategizes his way through enemy lines, making a name for himself and decimating enemy troops to achieve victory. Combat dominates the game’s experience. While war might not be blatantly glamorized, the warfare in these games is almost always painted as heroic or admirable. Valiant Hearts is a game about war; but it isn’t about warfare. It’s a game about heroes, but not about the kind that turn the tides of war. Rather, Valiant Hearts is a game about personal courage and loss, the every day feats of heroism that populate true war stories, the human bonds that exist even in the most hellish of environments, and is a beautiful depiction of the tragedies of World War I.

Inspired by real letters from World War I, Valiant Hearts follows the tales of four characters and their canine companion. Each has their own tale but they’re connected by a shared motivation: a passion for their family and a desire to reunite in a time of turmoil. Karl, a native German, who, although living in France and married to a French woman with an infant son, seeks to return with his family after being deported back to Germany and drafted into their army against his will. Father-in-law to Karl, Emile, shares a similar goal when he’s drafted into the French army, leaving his daughter to fend for the family farm. Anna, a Belgian medic and student, charges into the battlefield in an attempt to reunite with her father who is behind enemy lines. Finally, Freddie, an American who enlists in the French army, enters the war to get revenge for his loved ones who were killed by German forces.  Read more »


“Story-Rich Female Protagonist Games”- Say what?

As we discussed in our podcast last week, one of the community-selected sales in Steam’s Summer Sale was “Story-Rich Female Protagonist” games. Dr. B and I were decidedly unsure what to think of this category. Of course, one of the first questions she had is whether the creation of this category was actually a positive move to recognize female-fronted games or simply an attempt to cash in on a hot topic. More problematic, however, are the games Steam chose to group into this category. Read more »


Power Hour Review: Remember Me

“What’s your name?”

That simple question sets the scene for Capcom’s stunning new 3rd person, action-adventure game, Remember Me. Set in Neo-Paris, 2084, you play as Nillin, a memory hunter who had her memories wiped by the corporation Memorize. In this dystopian world, science has found a way to allow people to share their memories…directly. Originally meant as a diplomatic tool to help reduce war and crime, its commercialization has devastated the world. Leapers–people who became addicted to memory swapping and lost connection with their actual selves–attack anyone unlucky enough to stumble into their lairs. Memory junkies populate the streets of the slums, anxious for another fix. This is the world that Nillin wakes up into, with nothing more than a name and the disembodied voice of her employer to help her make sense of it.
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