My Game Pile is my stack of videogames that I’ve been working my way through over the course of the years, and writing about them. The plan is pretty simple: I talk about the game and I talk about the things that that game inspire. Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s long – and always, I try to give you an idea of who the game might be fore, or why they might want to buy it.
This is an experiment. I explain it in the video, but the basic gist is this: There’s this idea called Stimulated Recall. The idea is that in research, you often want a participant to do something, then you ask them questions about that something. Stimulated Recall involves recording the task, and then getting the participant to watch the video and explain what they’ve seen on the screen.
This is a small experiment in doing this solo, and we’ll see if I have more to do in this vein. But we’ll come to that later.
One of the funny things about reviewing board games versus computer games is that computer game reviews tend to be about describing what a game lets you act like you do, and board games tend to be about explaining how the game works. It’s an interesting conundrum, where the process of trying to explain why you should play a board game, you’re often taught, in a general way how to play it if you already own it.
I’m personally a fan of a model Tom Francis proposed in How To Explain Your Games To An Asshole, a model that includes one of my favourite ways to start talking about a game: Tell us about the fantasy of the game.
Hey, That’s My Fish is a game about playing a team of penguins trying to stave off starvation and maroon other penguins on ice floes where they’re probably doomed. It’s also a really neat little state machine that duplicates a bunch of computer game tropes with some really simple, elegant rules.
Also, since the game is a board game, most of the pictures for it have been taken by other board game sites, and I’d feel a bit crap taking pictures from them for the write-up. I can’t take my own pictures right now, so rather than scoop up other people’s pictures of their counter tops, instead, I’m just going to use some public domain pictures of penguins. Continue reading →
I considered for a while there making some sort of artful statement in how I talked about Virginia by making the entire article about it nothing but images, like the way that the piece uses a lack of speech as a technique for or maybe like, deliberate removal of specific word choices and instead forces you to start doing this Rosetta-stone-like assumption of what you’re going through, so like, you don’t know for sure what’s happening, but you’re left with a very clear understanding of what you experienced or the way that the jump cut, a technique discards all the intervening space and means that you’re just in on things that matter, instead of
which also means that if you see it or if you hear it or anything like that, then it’s a clear sign that it was something that mattered, rather than just something that the developers had to wedge in, because you know, expected interactions with the world. It’s not like Dishonored, with the maids or Hitman with the strippers, where the game sort of has to know it has an answer for if you point a weapon at them and pull the trigger, because its
a game that’s almost impossible to meaningfully record, too. I mean, the only thing that I can give you when I play the game, showing me playing it as I find the thing in each series that I can interact with, the small number of things that can come together to advance you to the next scene, is the atmosphere, and that environmental atmosphere is kind of the most important thing the game offers you.
You can hang out on a railing with a drink in your hand and feel the rising summer heat and wait until you’re ready to take the next drink. It might be moments, it might be ten minutes. I’m not going to tell you how quickly you should do things. Listening to the band, hesitating at a door, most of the game of Virginia is spent travelling and waiting, and you only see the bits that matter as part of
the thing with the linear sequence of cause and effect throughout the game is fascinatingly twisted where every story can be perceived as a sequence of event after event, with earlier events impacting later events, this game makes the structure of a puzzle game blatant and bare, where your actual agency in the world is just limited to finding the next thing the game wants you to find rather than treating the world as this concrete space with puzzles you can ‘solve’
which is further emphasised by the way the game dips between the real and unreal, showing your character dealing with dream sequences and altered realities, but altered realities that are weird enough that you don’t really need to know what’s going on the imagery becomes almost the only way you can thread between the events of the story that you’re seeing around you
the story shows you a way the story could go but crucially it shows you that you don’t go there, then shows you ways the story might have worked, but doesn’t do anything to convince you it did.
The only definite thing I can tell you about the story of Virginia is that it makes it clear to you how it didn’t end.
Virginia takes about three hours to play.
You can get Virginia on Gog, Steam, and Humble. It’s a pretty unapologetic environmental story game, so if you’re not into that, this isn’t going to be the game that changes your mind. It’s very pretty within its style, with lots of gorgeous shots of a pretty countryside. There is some content to be aware of – drugs, implied sex, maybe some implied homophobia, racism, and scenes of facelessness, blood and non-gory animal harm.
A good comparison is Gone Home. Gone Home has a lot more reading and exploring and incidental narratives you can put together in the story space. This has almost just one, and it’s fairly tight by comparison.
I’ve already looked at the beautiful, sassy, and funny Rhino Hero by Haba Games, and wouldn’t you know it, after I got it for my mother, I then got it for my sister, and then she – with some help – wound up getting Rhino Hero Super Battle for herself, and played it with her kids. I for one, am shocked, shocked to find that Haba, a games company that’s been making games for eighty years, has managed to, once again, make an absolute corker.
I have kind of bought Hyrule Warriors twice now, and never played it. It’s a game for Fox, a game that blends together her beloved Legend of Zelda universe – a series normally renowned for kind of tight, expertly designed small-scale adventure problems – and the indulgent, wide-open reckless ridiculousness of a Dynasty Warriors game, known as the genre of Musou. I say it’s a genre because even if nobody else was making Dynasty Warriors-like games, there are enough of them to be a genre.
Content Warning: Will contain spoilers for the plot of Hyrule Warriors.
At some point in the past two years I really did shift my attention as a writer from let’s take videogames seriously to let’s take games seriously, and part of that was an appreciation for tabletop and board games. Videogames were fast on track to become the biggest industry in the world, and the people loudly proclaiming they wanted more, different takes on videogames showed me that even if they did want them, they didn’t want them from me, since they’d much rather renew arguments about ‘are games art?’ and make fun of Ludonarrative Dissonance for being a long term.
Let’s be clear – at no point since this blog existed have I not been playing tabletop games. Mostly, what I’ve been playing have been RPGs and CCGs, but I’ve still been in those game spaces. But it wasn’t until a year or two ago – when I realised the boundary for making board games was so low that I could just jump into it, rather than needing to cultivate a new skillset like code.
And one of the first games I got to watch played, that blew my mind as a maker was this.
Yooka-Laylee is a collect-em-up game, in the vein of Psychonauts or a bunch of other games I haven’t played. It has a particular aesthetic, that singular form of storybook cartoon character, where people you meet are almost always some variety of pun. You travel around the world, you get the powerups, you collect the things, you solve the puzzles, and you win the game, at some point, I assume, concluding with a sort of tedious inevitability.
I’ve started writing this article about twelve times now, but I just stop, like I’m sliding off a waist-high invisible fence.
It’s not even that Yooka-Laylee is a bad game, I wouldn’t call it that. I really liked just randomly hopping around on Yooka with their charming little roll mechanic, bouncing and crashing onto things. I liked scrabbling around buildings and I liked the way you could just find odd things around the place. Then the game did something like hold up the game to give me an explanation for something and I alt-tabbed to check my email.
At what point do you let a story end? I’ve ruminated on being done with games well before their end points – games that fail to keep me entertained and engaged, games that want to be treated with veneration as whole works but don’t even themselves know what in their work counts as part of the text.
I’m going to avoid specific spoilers for Far Cry 4, but for those who are curious, I played up to the ending credits and stopped. There is More after that if you go looking for it, but the game themselves describes such extra information as ‘secret.’ I personally don’t feel they’re necessary or meaningful to the text of the game where you have agency.
You don’t need, really, to hear anything about Watch_Dogs. You can make the case there’s no reason for me to be going over something that’s so well-explored and well-covered as this game. Perhaps another writer who finds the game a deep and personal love may come back to it with an eye towards the games’ inner life and maybe find something to love. I don’t think I’m going to be that guy, though. I’m the guy who inspects the game, experiences the game, and mainly tries to see if I have anything new to complain about.
Odds are good, unless you’ve known me for a while, you don’t really know or can’t chart the history of the Game Pile. Originally, the focus of Game Pile was a review series that’s designed to be entertainingly useful in promoting the sales of games I like and the discouragement of games I don’t, with the notion that seeing me do that would get the attention of gaming editors, and maybe get paid for this work. Then I moved on to trying out a new model of how reviews should be, with my view of a standardised release schedule and form, which sought to tell you reasons you might want to play a game, rather than whether or not a game was, itself, fundamentally good or bad.
Then, in the most recent iteration, Game Pile has taken on a shape I really appreciate, which is to use the game as an avenue to discuss what the game made me think about or care about. It is the treatment of games as art objects. Sure, I try to give you an idea of what the game is like, but I do that by trying to only focus on games I like, and the games I like I tend to like because they make me feel and think something. It’s a nice occlusion.
With that in mind, then, I don’t want to tell you you should buy Planescape Torment. It’s a good game, I like it. If you like slow, talky-ready RPGs, it’s really good. Telling you that is almost the definition of old news and you can probably find someone to wax more rhapsodic about it with a cursory glance around.
Instead, I want to tell you about four stories from this game, and what they mean to me.
There is however, one truth to all these Baldur’s Gate 2 memories. The truth is, I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 2 as she is coded, for much more than one or two years. What kept me coming back, what kept me playing this game over and over again was the modding community – which saw the vast scale of the game, and still looked at places where it was incomplete, where the sheer scope of the project had failed, and looked into adding to the game what had been begun and not finished, what had been tried and not done, and what was needed but never realised.
Baldur’s Gate 2 is a pretty decent game. But to make it a great game took people who loved it. Continue reading →
You might notice that last week, we barely talked about how Baldur’s Gate 2 played, and we’ll get to that, but all you really need to know for now is that Baldur’s Gate 2 is a meandering, sprawling epic, too large for even its own ambitions.
I love this game. As with Fallout 3 before it, even if I didn’t think of the game fondly in itself, I’d still have to admit anything I spent a hundred hours doing voluntarily couldn’t be something I hated. I can’t talk about Baldur’s Gate 2, a game I marinated in, a game that I played over and over for days at a time, without making it clear, from the outset, that I love this game. It’s just such a basic, absolute background radiation to the conversation about Baldur’s Gate 2 that it seems impossible to describe, seems meaningless to describe. I can’t tell you how air tastes. I can’t describe to you what left is.
What that means is that when I talk about the game, and I tell you oh that’s nonsense, or I complain about the wonky balance or the plot or the voice acting or the bits that drag it’s the complaints of someone who has played every single moment of a game over a dozen times, someone who has played the game in various challenge modes and mods and been part of the conversation about its future.
I need you to understand this because when I talk to you about Baldur’s Gate 2 it’s mostly a festival of complaints about the ways the game is hilariously, completely, incompetently busted.
Videogames exist in a sort of weird plateau in the modern era. Speaking broadly, games these days aren’t that different from games five years ago, and it’s mostly just an evolution of user interface and following different trends. Sure, if you’re really into them you can appreciate the differences between Assassins Creeds 3 and 4, but a casual observer can be forgiven for thinking they’re basically the same game. It’s even easier to look at games in terms of their attempts to cash in on styles of games – the military shooters, the racers, the sporters, etcetera – rather than on their actual gaps in time.
Let’s look back then to a period when a style of game was a thing. We’re not going to look at the leader of a trend, we’re going to look at one of the most blatant followers.
Regarded largely as a modern classic, Beyond Good And Evil is one of those games along with Psychonauts that it launched on the overwhelmingly busy Gamecube and PS2 marketplaces, didn’t stand out in that attention economy because at the time, games journalism was still really difficult, and only a few years later, after its window for impact was past, people picked it up, noticed that it was phenomenal, and we ended up with a modern classic. Still, classic games get to be exulted the same way classic literature and classic medicine does, with an understanding that maybe being good for its time is not the same thing as always going to be good.
There’s a certain risk of rhapsodic enshrinement with games like this, where a game transitions from unknown to classic and we miss a chance to talk about what in the game is interesting or cool. And what with a trailer for Beyond Good And Evil 2 launched last year (again), I figured the time was ripe (several months ago) to replay and talk about Beyond Good And Evil. Continue reading →
There used to be this show called The Simpsons on TV, and while a lot of ink has been spilled about the show – in some cases by Dan Olson, using it as a lens to examine masculinity, and Hari Kondabolu to celebrate the diversity and complexity of his culture, and by Super Eyepatch Wolf to examine the impact of a creative complex on the creative continuity – the institution, the brand of The Simpsons is basically cultural superstructure. You can’t really go wrong writing about the Simpsons, you just need to make sure you both point out the recent series sucks (what would I know) and glorify in its history.
We talk a lot about what the Simpsons is doing based on its creators, a sort of top-down perspective on the work from the narrowest point which coincidentally is a position shared by people who, like, make films and youtube channels, but you know a thing we don’t talk about much?
It’s no secret that I have Opinions about the golden age of adventure game, which is to say about 1985 through to 1995, the period when the genre of moon-logic point-and-click PC games expanded, explored, then catastrophically collapsed. But while having that grounding in the genre is useful for being able to speak authoritively about the way the genre developed, it can sometimes suggest that there are no games out of that period that did it well.
Well, let me tell you about an amazing point-and-clicker from 2008.
More and more these game reviews are as much a chance to use the game as an avenue to talk about any old stuff I want to so let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what I’m gunna do.
So, Duke Nukem 3D. It’s a mediocre first-person shooter modelled on ‘Doom, but-‘ released to compete with Quake, an equally haphazard game that despite being a failure is still one of best videogames of its decade, no qualifications, no exceptions, Quake is, yes, that good, do not @ me. While id and Raven Software games sought to take a technical engine and wed it to solid fundamental play and design choices, 3D Realms strove to instead build their game with theming, making it all about being the coolest goddamn thing you could possibly be in 1996, and with that, carried the brand all the way into the Sonic The Hedgehog Franchise-Dumpster.
But while there’s a certain fondness that can persist for Sonic the Hedgehog, a franchise that picked up a lot of people when they were kids with ideals of environmentalism and friendship, Duke Nukem was…
I’ve recently taken a habit of going back and re-exploring things from that twilight period of my learning that I could be a person, that I was going to have to shape a life in the wake of the not-apocalypse, and that’s been a mixed bag. Some things hold up – like Homestar Runner, and even some of Seanbaby’s stuff. Some stuff, however…