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About the Archives

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to GAMBIT in the Reviews category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Research is the previous category.

Thoughts is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Board Game Criticism Done Right

Anybody who has spent a reasonable amount of time in the video game world will likely, at some point, have realized our serious lack of thoughtful and intelligent video game criticism. Or if not that, then at least countless people pointing out that lack and arguing about it. Approximately a year ago designer Dan Cook created a bit of an Internet firestorm with his "A Blunt Critique of Game Criticism." I personally do not agree with everything Cook said (especially the need for criticism to be useful to designers), but I mention it to highlight the fact that this is a continual topic. This is not to say that nobody is trying, of course, and collections such as The Well Played journal have been wonderfully helpful in advancing the practice.

As much as the video gaming world lacks solid criticism, however, the board game world does doubly so. However, one of my favorite thinkers and writers on BoardGameGeek, who goes by "Nate Straight," has recently posted an article entitled "What is / are Roads & Boats?--An attempt at ludomorphology.".

This piece is a fascinating look at one of my all-time favorite board games, Roads & Boats, an enormous, impossible game of logistics, route building and resource management. I am amazed it exists at all, the high prices it fetches on the aftermarket are a testament to how small the market is for such a game (and hence how small the print runs have been).

But to return to Straight's piece, it has what I believe to be the three components essential to solid games criticism.

1. A thorough description of the game. Straight does not just describe how it works, but why it works, and the consequences thereof. This naturally leads to a discussion of strategy, which reveals a deep understanding of the game. I am quite familiar with Roads & Boats, but Straight's article lead me to rethink what I thought I understood about it.

2. Context. Straight also puts on his media archaeology hat and argues for a lineage from which R&B was derived. He smartly avoids the intentionalist fallacy by showing where the game fell historically, while implying inspiration by highlighting similar mechanics. As such the article traces a history of route building and resource management mechanics in modern European board games. This is a method I am quite fond of (links to a .pdf), and one that I feel game studies could benefit greatly from.

3. Outside knowledge and information. Straight's piece is not just an analysis based on a deep understanding of play, but by bringing topology into the discussion he helps the reader understand where he is coming from and how he understands the game, while also giving them a new tool for understanding other games.

My one critique stems from the glossing-over of the wall mechanic, which is the major way players can negatively affect each other. Straight does mention it, however this particular mechanic can create situations where the game spirals downward from planning and management to spitefulness and bickering. When this happens everybody's score suffers, but the potential for it to happen (and I have seen it happen) is a defining attribute of the game. In other words, players have the ability to affect a near-collapse of the system by making resources inaccessible and in doing so severely limiting their own progress. That the game enables this sort of petty, very human behavior, but does not at all require it, is in itself fascinating. Your civilization can collapse because of your own greed or spitefulness, and I find that very compelling.

However, overall I find Straight's article to be a deeply intelligent and well thought-out look at a landmark game, and a solid example of effective board game criticism. I do not doubt I will be showing it to my students in the coming years.

Analyzing Rory's Story Cubes


As an aficionado of both dice and semiotics, I was very excited to find Rory's Story Cubes in my FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) a few weeks ago. This set consists of nine six-sided dice featuring 54 different icons; every side of every die is unique.

Rory's Story Cubes is presented as a storytelling game, and offers a few short ways of using them as such, all of which revolve around rolling the dice, creating a sequence of images, and constructing a story based on that sequence.

When used as a game to tell stories, they are a perfect example of how the syntagmatic dimension functions. In semiotics, this dimension refers to how the relationships between signs affects their meaning. In language this manifests as syntax. Here, the sequence of images as displayed on the cubes is syntagmatic in that the meaning of a given cube in shaping the story is necessarily formed by the adjacent cubes. Placing the bee before the keyhole would be very different than before the open hand. In the first example, the bee would likely be interpreted as passing through the keyhole, where the second example implies that the bee was swatted.

Another example of how the syntagmatic dimension shapes meaning is the Kuleshov Effect, a phenomenon related to montage. Named after Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, the Kuleshov Effect describes how an audience brings their own emotions and backgrounds into play when interpreting a sequence of images. Similarly, the meaning of the cubes is also shaped by the players. It makes just as much sense to interpret the bee-hand combination as meaning that the bee landed on the hand, or stung the hand, and so on.

On a different note, Rory's Story Cubes are also an interesting example of several concepts introduced by Espen Aarseth in Cybertext:

"It is useful to distinguish between strings as they appear to readers and strings as they exist in the text, since these may not always be the same. For want of better terms, I call the former scriptons and the latter textons. [...] In addition to textons and scriptons, a text consists of what I call a traversal function - the mechanism by which scriptons are revealed or generated from textons and presented to the user of the text" (62).

In Rory's Story Cubes, the "textons" include all 54 images, while the "scriptons" are whichever images are currently, for lack of a better term, "active" - that is, being made use of by the user. The traversal function is built into their physical nature as dice: the act of rolling them generates the scriptons.

Of course, Aarseth developed these concepts as a means of analyzing textual artifacts, whose primary function is "to relay verbal information" (ibid.). He further notes that scriptons "are what an 'ideal reader' reads by strictly following the linear structure of the textual output" (ibid.). The scriptons in Rory's Story Cubes, however, are not meant to be "read" in the manner Aarseth describes, but rather are used as tools and prompts for constructing a narrative. This is a key distinction between the Cubes and purely textual machines, and alternative terms to "textons" and "scriptons" are called for, to account for artifacts such as these.

While Rory's Story Cubes are certainly effective illustrations of all of these principles, what I personally find compelling about them is not the meanings that can come out of rolling them, but rather that the near-infinite sum of meanings they might release and enable has been so elegantly constrained by their form. It is the many potential meanings highly compressed in the textons that charm, not the meanings brought out by the scriptons.

One-Paragraph Review - Vagrant Story

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Vagrant Story (PSX, 2000, 40-50 hrs) - A beautiful, if immensely complicated, late-generation PS1 game that artfully draws from survival horror, turn-based RPGs, platformers, and block-puzzle games. Its gorgeous art style is second-to-none on the platform, with impressive cinematic presentation even though cut-scenes are short and sparse. The story, which involves a whole lot of socio-political-religious intrigue, is difficult but absorbing thanks to its sharply-written characters and morally complex world. Equally baffling at first is the weapon crafting system, which, unlike most RPGs, demands total comprehension from the player in order to make progress. Mastery is daunting but also rewarding, giving the player a deep sense of ownership over what they create. Vagrant Story is recommendable ultimately for the dark spell it casts, for how you lose yourself in the intricacies of both its mechanics and its plot, for how it makes magic seem magical and tempers that whimsy with refreshing political cynicism. It is one of the precious few games where light and darkness don't represent good and evil but, in fact, may represent the opposite. Directed and produced by Yasumi Matsuno, whose Final Fantasy Tactics demonstrates a similarly black view of politics. Art direction by Hiroshi Minagawa. Character and environmental design by Akihiko Yoshida. Main programming by Taku Murata. And music by Hitoshi Sakimoto, at the absolute top of his game.

One-Paragraph Review - Metroid Prime 1

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Metroid Prime 1 (GC, 2002, 15-20 hrs) - A very nice first-person 3D exploration game by Texan developer Retro Studios, based on the original Nintendo franchise helmed by Yoshio Sakamoto. In terms of writing and backstory, Prime 1 is probably one of the more interesting examples of Western rationalism coming into contact with Japanese techno-mysticism. The techno-mystical mythology of Metroid, centered around the shaman-like "Chozo" race and its seemingly "magical" technology, is neither disregarded by the American writers nor fully embraced. Rather, it is cleverly scrutinized throughout the game in the guise of enemy science reports that keep trying--and failing--to understand it. Though entirely optional, this aspect of Prime 1 makes the game somewhat of a thoughtful exploration of not only the implied metaphysics of Metroid but of videogames in general, since many of the scrutinized concepts are common game conventions, like "life". Otherwise Prime 1 is recommendable as a marvelous work of atmosphere and game design, with mechanics and interface that blend together so seamlessly they recall the sublime immersive coherence of System Shock 1. A much, much better game than either of its sequels, largely because (unlike them) it retains the mystery and loneliness of its Japanese brothers, making it a more provocative piece of science fiction. Credits: Michael Mann (producer), Mark Pacini (lead designer), Mark Johnston (lead engineer), Todd Keller (lead artist).

One Paragraph Review - Hell Night (AKA Dark Messiah)

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Hell Night (PSX, 1999, 7-10 hrs) - A modestly budgeted, extremely fucking scary Japanese first-person horror game, in which you find yourself trapped in the Tokyo subway system being pursued by a single, relentless monster. Not released in the U.S., but translated to English in PAL regions, Hell Night (originally titled Dark Messiah in Japan) is a very unusual combination of Myst-style adventure game design, Ultima Underworld-style real-time exploration, and Japanese visual novel-style narrative design. If you can get past the somewhat awkward grafting together of these components, you will find the game rewarding in many wonderful ways. Highly recommended. Credits: Hiroyuki Tanaka (producer), Yutaka Fujimoto (planner), Hiroyuki Fujiwara (programmer), Hoshito Yukizawa (artist).

One Paragraph Review - The Lurking Horror

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

The Lurking Horror (PC, 4-6 hrs) - The best H. P. Lovecraft game ever, at least in terms of evoking the famous horror writer's ambiguous prose style. Text is the perfect medium to describe "indescribable horror", and there's a lot that's indescribable in this effective text adventure from INFOCOM. The Lurking Horror puts you in the shoes of a student at "GUE" (actually MIT, right down to the floor layouts) who is snowed-in on campus while trying to finish a paper late one evening. This simple set up is all designer/programmer Dave Lebling needs to send you on a dark journey into the unspeakable, which involves extensive exploration of the campus tunnels, encounters with creepy janitors, and runs-ins with the occasional unseen terror. Puzzles are occasionally esoteric, but the slow-burn sense of dread and evocative anti-description make this a superbly memorable horror experience.

One Paragraph Review - Chrono Cross

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Chrono Cross (PSX, 40-60 hrs) - A lush, beautiful, and deep Japanese RPG that suffers from a fatal case of bad storytelling. A sequel to Chrono Trigger, which was much better, Chrono Cross pretends to be an unrelated story about alternate dimensions for the first two thirds and then turns into something resembling a bad Chrono Trigger fan-fiction before self-destructing in a fit of hysterical pretension. Not that this necessarily matters if you're in it for the gameplay, which is pretty well-done and notable in particular for its excellent magic system. Though seemingly arbitrary at first, the magic system is deeply integrated into the plot, so that by the end the game cannot even be finished unless the player understands the cosmological significance of the magic system and its symbolic relation to the story world. A long game, but the gorgeous graphics and wonderful music (Yasunori Mitsuda at his finest) make the journey pleasant enough. Those expecting something as elegant, focused, and unpretentious as Chrono Trigger however will want to vomit by the end. Directed and written by Masato Kato, who swiped most of the story material from his equally self-destructive Xenogears. With Hiromichi Tanaka (producer), Kiyoshi Yoshii (main programmer), and Yasuyuki Honne (art director).

One Paragraph Review - Killer 7

This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.

Killer 7 (Gamecube, 2005, 10-15 hrs) - A stellar mind-fuck exploration/shooter game, and in my opinion the best work of self-described "punk" Japanese game developer Suda51 (at least of what's been released Stateside). The set-up involves a group of professional assassins--the Killer 7--who all inhabit the body of a wheelchair-bound old man and can only "come out" when in proximity to a functioning television set. The player must make use of their various abilities to take down "Heaven's Smile", a group of invisible, shape-shifting, and apparently skinless suicide bombers who laugh as they explode. While not technically "horror" Killer 7 manages to be scary in ways few horror games are, and the way it weaves (or rather smashes) together science-fiction, occult fantasy, and political intrigue is genuinely surreal. Unfairly criticized as a mere "rail shooter" by its critics, it actually has a nicely designed combat system that recalls some of the best aspects or Resident Evil 4 and Dead Aim. Its spacial navigation system is especially innovative in how it removes virtually all redundancy from the survival horror exploration/puzzle framework, streamlining it into a smooth, slick experience. Suda's signature ultra-high-contrast cel-shaded visuals give the entire game an appropriate neo-noir look. In the name of Harmon. Credits: Goichi Suda (story, writer, director, producer), Shinji Mikami (story, executive producer).
The Shady Puzzle

You know one of the cool things about working at GAMBIT? There's all these neat people, making games for me to play. Case in point, I just heard Ahmed Wali Aqeel, one our interns from last summer, worked on a game for the iPhone called The Shady Puzzle. For only 99 cents! So of course I bought it.

Anyone who's ever played Griddlers or the like will immediately get it. Wikipedia tells me this class of puzzle is called a "Nonogram". That's your vocabulary word for the day. You're welcome.

Shady Puzzle
A cell phone picture of a cell phone. How recursive.

All in all, it's a fine little app. The puzzles are fun and well suited to the iPhone. There's some nice polish there in terms of page turn animations and such. I bought the game around 9:30am and had it completely finished by the time I went home at 5pm. Yes, I did do some work that day too, so I'd guess it took me about 2-3 hours to beat all the puzzles. Note I was already an expert in these puzzles before I started, so your mileage may vary. There's replay potential there as well, where it keeps track of your best time on solving a particular puzzle. It's been about three days, and I've beaten all the boards a few times now.

Shady Puzzle Main Menu
This is what the main menu looks like when all the puzzles are beaten. I am mighty. Or neurotic. Perhaps both.

A few gentle suggestions for the next version.

  • More Puzzles! Ahmed tells me more are coming in the next release, which is scheduled for next (this?) week.
  • Usability Improvements. While actually playing the game is fairly simple, there's some other interactions around it that could use a bit of work. It took me a while to figure out how to start a puzzle, for example, and I find the achievements page to be rather inscrutable. Clearly I achieved something, but what I don't know. Also, the guess feature is hard to use. Which is perhaps as it should be, since guessing is for WIMPS, but somehow I don't think that's what the developers were going for.
Anyway, I enjoyed it. Congratulations Ahmed!

GAMBIT alums release Bee Spelled for the iPhone

Bee Spelled Screenshot 2 Fantastic.pngHuali Fu, Muhammad Mohsin, Jonathan Zhan, Alexander Chong, and Leonard Mah are familiar names to GAMBIT... some of them participated in the GAMBIT Summer Program of 2008, others were interns/freelancers in the Singapore Lab. They've started up their own indie game company, The Dumpling Dimension, and I've been playing their first iPhone game, Bee Spelled, now available on the iTunes App Store!

It's a word search game, but unlike Boggle, letters don't need to be adjacent to make words. If you don't use a letter in one round, it'll stick around for the next. It's up to you to decide which to use and which to conserve. Just the other night I had the letters for "P-U-S-I-L-L-A-_-I-M-O-U-S" and 4 other less-useful characters. This had me agonizing for a while; if you spell short words, you lose your combo multipliers and that lexical masterpiece you've been building up won't have the impact that it could have had.

Long words, however, help you with combat. Your avatar, a bee named Chub, is up against 10 lolcats and spambots. They will chew away at your health bar and you'll have to use green tiles to stay in the game, blue tiles to keep them at bay, and red tiles to dish out additional fire damage. It's a tough balancing act; if you finish off an opponent too quickly, you're losing opportunities to rack up more points, but you can't afford to take too much damage yourself. Completing the game is no big deal, even in hard mode, but finding the right balance of healing and damage to maximize your score gets trickier at the higher difficulties.

You can probably tell I've been playing it a lot. The meme-referencing jokes are funny, possibly a little too contemporary, but hey, software updates may keep the NPC exchanges fresh and up-to-date with the latest 4chan trends. In the meantime, you've got the online leaderboards for competition. It's just a dollar, so if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, check it out!

Be Attitude For Gains

Radiant Silvergun was one of the last games released for Sega's ill-fated Saturn. The game is a vertically scrolling shooter (or "shmup") and is considered one of, if not the, best games in the genre ever made. Its high acclaim combined with a limited, Japan-only release has made the game exceedingly rare, with copies on eBay going for upwards of $300 USD. Reasons for its status vary: the graphics, gameplay and soundtrack are all extremely impressive even eleven years after it was released.


"Be Attitude For Gains" is one of the more famous bits of Engrish in the game, displayed with advice for defeating each boss or miniboss.

What often goes overlooked, and what makes Radiant Silvergun special, is the parallel between the narrative and how the game is played (this post assumes familiarity with the plot and basic mechanics, check Wikipedia and the full plot translation at Silver Translations to get caught up). Just as the story is about an endless cycle, the gameplay encourages the player to enact out a similar cycle through several mechanisms.

The first is genre convention: shmups are typically designed to be played through over and over again, with the assumption that the player will be continually trying to improve his or her score. As a result the games are usually quite short; Radiant Silvergun can be finished in around ninety minutes.

The second is the leveling system: using a weapon to earn points causes it to gain levels, increasing the damage it inflicts. When the player runs out of lives or finishes the game they have the option to save their game, which in actuality only saves the weapon level. A new game can then be started from the save file, so the player begins the game with stronger weapons. This encourages continually using the same save file: playing the game, saving, starting over from that point, and so on. Each time the player does this the game gets slightly easier because the player's weapons are more powerful.

Next there is the chain system: every enemy ship is colored red, blue, or yellow. For every three ships destroyed of the same color the player earns bonus points. The bonus awarded increases with the number of chains, which in turn levels the weapons faster. This encourages the player to practice levels in order to learn how to chain most effectively, leading to more replays. There is also the "secret" chain, earned by destroying one red, one blue, then one yellow, and then continued by destroying groups of three yellows. This type of chain earns many more points than regular chains but is much harder to accomplish.

Finally there are two types of hidden bonuses spread throughout the game: Merry the dog and "weapon" bonuses. Merry is located in various points throughout the entire game, and can only be found by using the lock-on homing weapon. The weapon will target Merry, revealing him or her and awarding bonus points; there is no other way to find Merry. The "weapon" bonuses are also spread throughout the game; by using the correct weapon at the right time the player is awarded a "weapon" bonus. Both of these bonus types are left to the player to discover.

Normally we might say that all of these mechanics are included to increase replay value. On one level this is true of Radiant Silvergun, but there is an ulterior motive: by playing the game over and over again the player is enacting out the same type of cyclical existence presented in the narrative. Doris Rusch calls this "fictional alignment": the player experiences the endless, unbreakable cycle just as the characters do (from personal correspondence / forthcoming research).

It is this alignment that makes Radiant Silvergun so brilliant. By designing to maximize replay value, Treasure has created a game where the player wants the cycle to continue, further emphasizing the inevitably of the outcome. This is a spin on the classic adage of creative writing: show, don't tell. When the player realizes the parallel it is all the more powerful an experience because he or she was implicated in it from the beginning.

Shmups and similar arcade-style games are often derided for their emphasis on memorization and repetition, and have largely gone out of style. Radiant Silvergun shows how even an outdated form can create a compelling gameplay experience, suggesting that such an achievement might be possible for other classic game designs.

A Dynamic Review

The recent flash game Death vs Monstars, playable on several websites, is a hardcore shooter openly inspired by dual-stick shooters such as Smash TV and Geometry Wars. The reviews for the game have been strange: they have reservations about its derivative nature but recognize that it is fun. The IndieGames Weblog says it contains "such silly gimmicks as 'Berserk Mode' and 'Bullet Time'" but nevertheless it is "great fun." The Digital Battle reviewer writes: "It's a clever little game, make no mistake on that one. There's lots of enemies and tons of power-ups, so you'll likely have lots of fun playing with this casual shooting experience." This review strikes me as odd: one rarely associates "casual" with "tons of enemies and tons of power-ups." The overall tone of the review is positive, but this excerpt makes the game sound completely uninteresting: enemies and power-ups have been done to death (pun intended), and "casual" is often used to mean "easy." Jay is Games is more positive: "As brainless as Death Vs. Monstars comes across, it is constructed smartly. Monsters appear in well-paced waves, and their movement patterns complement each other." What I find lacking in these reviews is that they focus on the game mechanics while ignoring the dynamics. Here I am using the definitions of "mechanics" and "dynamics" put forth by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek in their paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research: "Mechanics describes the particular components of the game, at the level of data representation and algorithms;" "Dynamics describes the run-time behavior of the mechanics acting on player inputs and each other's outputs over time." In other words, the game mechanics are what the player can do, which in the case of DvM includes moving, shooting, upgrading, and so on. The dynamics are what actually happens when the game is played. This critical review is an attempt to explain what makes Death vs Monstars compelling by examining the game's dynamics.

Arguably the most important aspect of the game is the control scheme. In DvM the player controls Death with the mouse while Death shoots an endless stream of bullets backwards. Holding the left mouse button locks the current firing direction, allowing the player to move in any direction while firing the same way. Double-clicking will cause Death to enter "berserk mode," which fires several rings of bullets and transforms enemy bullets into money. Holding the space bar enables "bullet time," which slows down all enemies and their bullets. Despite its simplicity, much of the game's depth comes from these controls.

At first glance the fact that Death always fires backwards seems like a hack, a poor attempt to duplicate the dual-analog control of Geometry Wars and Smash TV, where firing backwards is a common tactic. Using the left mouse button to fix direction or "strafe" also feels like a hack, giving the player marginally more control. However, this control scheme creates a surprisingly deep dynamic. Unlike dual-analog shooters, in DvM it is extremely difficult to change fire direction quickly. Frequently, the optimum strategy is to hold the mouse button, fixing the fire direction, in order to concentrate on the largest groups of enemies. On the downside this leaves a lot of space for enemies to attack. Gameplay-wise this results in fixing the firing direction for a few seconds, then re-positioning Death and the fire direction for a few more seconds. In essence, the player is constantly re-defining the space in the game, dividing it between attackable and un-attackable. For example, if the player situates Death in the lower-right corner while shooting towards the upper-left, Death's bullet stream covers a large space, making it attackable and quickly destroying any Monstars in that area. On the other hand, the space behind and around Death becomes un-attackable and hence dangerous, because it will take a few moments to re-position Death to attack Monstars that appear in that space. In any twitch shooter a few moments are an eternity, so the player must always be planning to change position and attack direction.


The player controls Death, the white skull; green circles and yellow stars are Death's bullet; coins are gold; everything else is hostile.

Another element that makes Death vs Monstars unique is the upgrade system. Although countless games use the same "kill things to get better at killing things" feedback loop, in DvM money encourages the player to constantly engage in risk-reward thinking. This happens because all of the enemies drop money when killed, and the player will naturally want that money. Because the control scheme causes the player to kill enemies in one area at a time, usually there are a lot of Monstars between Death and the money, making it extremely difficult to acquire. This is where "bullet time" comes in: by slowing down the action it is much easier to fly into dangerous space, grab the money, and re-orient the firing direction before the Monstars can react. Unlike other hardcore shooters, the enemies in DvM do not fire complex bullet patterns, and Death's hitbox is relatively large. Because of this, bullet time is rarely useful for actually dealing with bullets.

The upgrade system has another potential consequence, depending on how the player is choosing to play. The Jay is Games review notes that the shop is "abusable." This is because it is possible to replay older levels to farm money. Also, if a player dies midway through the level they keep any money they had collected. A dedicated player could theoretically replay the first level over and over until they can purchase every upgrade. However, the short length of the game enables a different sort of strategy: if the player decides to go through the game without repeating levels, the shop becomes extremely important. Unless they die frequently, the player will be unable to afford every upgrade so they must carefully consider what to purchase. There is a constant choice between upgrading now to make the next level easier, or trying to beat the next level as-is, so as to buy an even more powerful upgrade later. Upgrades also allow the player to tune the difficulty: not purchasing them can make the game significantly harder.


The Death vs Monstars Shop

How frequently players actually chose sub-optimum weapons or similar equipment, in any game, is another matter. Intuitively this seems uncommon, as evidenced by the enormous market for powerful items from MMORPGs. Using these types of feedback loops to improve an avatar or other in-game object seems to be intrinsically pleasing: an enormous amount of tower defense games and RPGs depend almost entirely on the player's ability to maximize such loops. What makes DvM interesting is how the short length allows the player to experiment with the loop and rapidly understand it.

What I have tried to do with this review is show how games in general, and Death vs Monstars in particular, cannot be adequately described in terms of their mechanics. DvM is a great example because so many of the game's mechanics are seen elsewhere, which initially makes the game seem derivative, but by examining the dynamics we find that it is actually quite innovative. For example, explaining the control system says nothing of its fundamental impact on strategy, and mentioning the upgrade system does not reveal its many affordances. Similarly, descriptions such as "tons of enemies and tons of power-ups" or "berserk mode and bullet time" do not tell the reader how the game actually plays. This is why the reviews quoted at the start of this article were conflicted: by focusing on the mechanics they only saw what was derivative. They recognized that the game is fun, but not that the fun is in the dynamics. Reviews that focus on dynamics can provide a more accurate description of how a game plays, giving the player a better idea of whether they will enjoy the game.

Relax after Spore with some GTA

A few weeks ago I made a rather odd purchase: both Spore and Grand Theft Auto III. This was to be my first GTA experience. I had always assumed the series was just lowbrow entertainment riding on shock value. I bought the game because I felt I needed to know about it as an academic, not because I expected to enjoy it. Spore, on the other hand, I fully expected to love. The creative potential in designing your creature, cities and armies, combined with the expanse of time and space contained in the game, made me wonder if you could ever run out of ways to play and things to explore.

Having played both for a few weeks now, I am forced to admit that I don't particularly enjoy Spore, yet GTA3 has been non-stop entertainment. Part of me really feels bad about this (as though I am now a stereotypical gamer), so I have been trying to understand the reason for my preference.

While they seem quite different, these two games are both about exploration. Exploration is the fundamental promise of Spore: a whole universe populated by the strange creations of people all across the world just waiting to be your backyard. Not long after the release of the creature creator EA and Maxis announced that over one million creatures had been uploaded to their servers . The idea of cruising across the universe, encountering creatures weird and wonderful, was an idea that appealed to many. Even your home planet would be populated with these creatures.

There was also the prospect of exploring the system behind Spore. How would other creatures react to me? What strange things could I create, and how would the game handle them?

Crunkmaster Small.png

The Crunkmaster is a carnivorous quadruped known for inventing post-modernism before the chair.

However, Spore does not allow for this kind of leisurely exploration. The game creates an environment where the struggle to survive is just that, and inaction equals death. From the very beginning Spore pressures you to act, as bigger fish in the pond start trying to eat you. At this early stage it's easy to outrun them or quickly evolve some defenses. In the creature phase, the game adds more pressure in the form of migration. After the first time your nest migrates the game does a poor job of alerting you. When you discover your nest has moved, finding the new nest is an immediate priority, otherwise you cannot heal or mate. This happens frequently enough that, when combined with basic survival, you always need to be doing something.

In the tribal phase your nest is constantly attacked, either by other tribes or wild animals. Even tribes you have never encountered somehow know you are there, and will walk across the entire continent to attack you. In order to keep up you must deal with the other tribes to expand your village and your population. The civilization stage is no better. Soon after evolving I was confronted by two foreign boats: the first offered a trade route, the second was shelling my city, and the situation deteriorated rapidly. As with the previous phases, inaction leads to defeat.

The worst case, by far, is the space phase. Almost immediately after blasting off I was confronted with numerous other races. The first two or three were benign, interested in establishing trade routes, buying my spice, and sending me on errand-boy missions to find stuff on their own planets. However, it wasn't long before I started receiving ominous transmissions to the effect that someone hates me and we are at war. I'm not really sure why, maybe it's because Matt evolved racism. I largely ignored these messages, assuming the game would give me a chance to comprehend this new phase.

My first goal was to establish an economy. I started a few trade routes and went about terraforming a few planets. However, it wasn't very long before those ominous threats turned to action, and I soon found all of my planets, and my allies' planets, under attack. I had no time to do anything but run around the galaxy fighting off the invaders, which really isn't what I wanted to do in the first place. Of course I was unable to stop all of the attacks, and before I knew it my allies had been conquered. I was broke and alone in an extremely hostile universe.

Throughout the whole game the only opportunity I had to explore was at the end of the tribal and civilization stages. At these points I had control over my immediate surroundings and was free from hostility. However, that glowing button demands you continue your evolution, never hinting at what awaits on the other side.

Frustrated, I turned to Grand Theft Auto III, and was surprised to find that the game was made for exploration. There is so much you can choose to do even on the first island that just exploring the game space is fun. Aside from the mundane places like the gun store and the hospital, there are plenty of hidden shortcuts and ramps waiting to be found. The game rewards knowledge of such places: shortcuts make timed missions easier, and launching your car off a ramp can result in a monetary bonus.

GTA3 Action Shot.jpg

Just taking a look around. Really.

The game system behind Liberty City is even more fun to explore. I spent quite a few hours just learning the behavior of the police. I learned that shooting at their car usually gets you two wanted stars, while running down a pedestrian or carjacking (within police sight) nets you just one. I subsequently learned that grand theft auto and manslaughter are equal offenses. I also noticed that if the police ram your car into a crowd of pedestrians, subsequently squashing a few of them, nobody stops to help them.

There's also plenty to discover about the civilians in the game. If I steal their car and don't go anywhere, will they take it back? How much can I push them around before they attack me? Answering these questions and finding new questions is incredibly entertaining and rewarding. I have to believe that Rockstar knew this, and that is why the game does not pressure you to move forward.

While there are always missions you could be doing, there is no penalty for ignoring them. Early in the game no agent seeks you out and incites conflict; it is entirely possible to play endlessly without any conflict at all. Once a conflict ends, it is forgotten. That guy you ran over? Nobody from his gang comes seeking revenge. Previous arrests? The police don't notice. The people of Liberty City live wholly in the present. Even if you have a one-star wanted rating the police will give up if you just wait it out. This lack of pressure gives you ample opportunity to explore both the game's space and system.

Exploring a game can be a great source of fun and excitement, as seen in one of gaming's favorite traditions: the Easter egg. Hunting for hidden items, techniques, and spaces is essentially the same as the large-scale exploration present in games like GTA3 and Spore. Finding that secret room is like finding the hidden ramp or (I would imagine) the strange new species. It seems to me that the discovery of the unexpected is a source of limitless fun, and in this regard GTA3 is far more successful than Spore.

First Games by Famous Designers

One of our Game Nights this summer showcased the first games of famous designers. The idea was to show how first game designers started, and teach our students that it is okay if your first game is not genius, and that good games are the result of teamwork and not of individual personalities. As I was working on videogame archeology to prepare the session, I realized that lesson was not going to get across with these examples, because they all turned out to be really great games, and some of them made by the designer himself. What is interesting is that most of these games have nothing to do with what these designers have become famous for. So let's travel back in time and play these "first games".

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[WARNING: The below post contains some small spoilers.]

Braid is a very strange game. I just finished it and I'm not sure what I feel. I wasn't expecting something so... lyrical, maybe? I don't know what the right word is. Braid is one part poetry, two parts hard-core puzzle game. I'm not sure how seriously the metaphorical layer is meant to be taken. On one hand the poetic bits feel very "separate" from the game. You can simply ignore all the text if you want. Yet the graphics, the lovely Van Gogh-like art style, is a bit harder to ignore. The music also does much to create an introspective, dream-like mood. Even without the text, it's difficult to take Braid simply as entertainment.


The big mystery of the game, I suppose, is what the gameplay has to do with the story. There clearly is a connection, but it seems deliberately obscure. On the most basic level, Braid's traditional platforming elements and time manipulation stuff seems intended as a loose metaphor for the trials, mistakes, and corrections in a relationship. The "princess" of this game seems like some weird ideal of romantic love that the protagonist is forever in search of. Or maybe she's a metaphor for failed relationships? I have no idea really. Whatever the case, it is clear that she is a metaphor, which, at least, is something Braid seems determined not to let the player walk away from the game without realizing.

I haven't put much thought into interpreting Braid. I finished it after several hours of play, and my immediate impression is one of dreamy confusion. I confess to reading most of the text quickly, without really trying to find a coherent thread in it. I'm not sure if there is one, or if the text bits are meant to be disjointed fragments. The only reoccurring theme is the princess. This is probably why the final sequence, where you finally find the princess, gave me an emotional reaction. I couldn't believe I got so close to her, and even cooperated with her, only to have time rewind, and have her disappear like a phantom. Did I do that on purpose? Why was rewinding the only thing I could do? I wanted to be with her, if only to get some answers to all these bizarre feelings and images. But she just vanished.


Braid makes the most sense if you conclude that everything in it represents a dreamer's waking life filtered through a host of subconscious symbols. It feels like the dream of a gamer, an expression of the collective unconscious generated by a life-time of game playing. This, to me, explains all the references to other videogames, which are all videogames with princesses. Braid may be an attempt by a gamer to make a game that expresses the connection between frivolous game conventions and real life, of how silly ideas like "save the princess" seep into our consciousness and become part of our shared cultural experience. It may be an attempt to reform that silliness, by giving these ideas metaphorical value they normally lack. Braid could be seen as a critique of games like Mario in this way, where "saving the princess" is just some meaningless goal. Here it is meaningless as well, but its phantom nature has been twisted into a meditation on the elusiveness of happiness. The design goal of Braid, in essence, seems to be to reformulate the words "I'm sorry, but the princess is in another castle" as an existential crisis. So that when the dinosaur eventually asks you "This princess... does she even exist?" you honestly don't know. Even at the end, when you find her, she may still just be a phantom... one that you are forever chasing.

Rockman Lovers Drivin' Lamborghinis

Over the weekend, I spent some time watching this video:

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Take the Rorschach test

This game had been on my list of "games I should play" for some time, mainly because I have this thing for adventure games that has lead me to write my dissertation on them. I'm happy to see that there are still innovations possible in a genre that many have declared to be dead (or at least, to have committed suicide). Rorschach is not a commercial game, so I guess it counts as indie. The truth is that it's not a complete game, but a really good prototype wrapped in quirky and loopy charm. The game designer is Jens Andersson, lead designer of The Darkness, and the artist is Ida Rödén.

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Rag Doll Kung Fu and the rough path to innovation

This "flashback" review of an independent game released in 2005 was written originally for the Indiecade blog.

Of all the games I have purchased, I have only been asked for an ID to prove my age once (which actually says a lot about what kinds of games I buy, but that's another story), and that was for Rag Doll Kung Fu. It's rated M (17+), because there's blood and gore, violence, "language" (whatever that is) and use of drugs. I find it amusing, because while it is true that this PC game actually includes all those elements, it is also true that there is an important parodic tone to the whole game that differentiates it from, say The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which has the same rating with similar elements according to the ESRB).

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Life, Love, and Death... in five minutes.

The below entry first appeared at

I think I understand. The screen is everything. It's your entire life. You can only see what's right in front of you. The future stretches out in a haze that dimly comes into focus as you move forward. The past also recedes back into a haze. It's everywhere you've been. Everything you've done, all sliding back into a blurry mess. But it's still on the screen. It's just squished beyond recognition.

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