I have a sympathy for the death of a game.
History happens so fast, these days.
It took a lot to get me out of 4ed D&D.
I’ve been playing D&D 4th edition since 2008. Our playgroup has a two-DMs policy, so the DM doesn’t have to wear out only ever playing; so we have two campaigns running side by side. This year, I sat down in the heat of a summer night with my friends, pulled out some printed sheets, and asked if we could give Blades in the Dark a try.
I’ve been running this game now for a year. My players’ crew, the Six Towers Station, a gang of daring smugglers, who I sometime tease for their lack of interest in smuggling. They have pulled off bank heists, woken up in a shipping container, relocated the bodies of ghostly lesbians, sold a soul in bits to the eletrical grid, created the myth of a refugee goddess, and ensnared in their web of crime a tanner’s and an undertaker’s.
I planned exactly none of this.
I’ve talked about lawnmower language when it comes to talking about games. It’s the idea that sometimes we talk about games as if we’re talking about products for a task and sometimes we talk about them like they’re art for consideration. Normally, I don’t do that here – even the games I really love, I tend to love with caveats, big asterisks that tell you hey, I may like this game, but don’t go thinking you should. Sometimes, some game reviews are basically advertisements for the game.
In this case, I don’t mind advertising this game because it’s very easy for me to tell you how much you should want it. Hell.
This… will be short.
I rarely hold up Dungeons and Dragons books as being good books for general gaming purposes. They’re all very much books about Dungeons and Dragons, and even Elder Evils, last weeks’ offering for campaign-ending threats, was a book jammed full of systems for explaining weather, big dungeon designs and complex fight mechanics. When you bought a book for Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, you were often getting a book that was some 30%-50% system information, information that’s dead weight if you’re not using that system. Some of my favourite books from that time, like The Tome of Battle and Races of Eberron are absolutely steeped in mechanical information, and if you’re not using it, you really aren’t getting enough book for your investment to be worth your time.
But let me show you a book that I want to recommend to anyone making or playing with horror even if you don’t want to use D&D or even fantasy settings, that also has the on-theme matter of being a spooky book about spooky stuff. I don’t mean Heroes of Horror, which devotes a lot of its space to trying to systemitise horrifying things, no. I want to talk to you about a book about putting things in your world that are horrible.
I want to talk about Lords of Madness.
That said, I would issue a content warning, beyond the typical this is a book about spooky stuff. This book has a lot of humans being eaten, brain parasites, descriptions of people being seen as prey, but all that stuff is very passe for D&D monsters. Here be tentacles, goop, puppeteering and meat.
The other content warning is that if you’re Dissociative or plural or have DID or any of the related fields of mindset complication, Lords of Madness attempts to write numerous ‘alien’ psychologies that may look familiar to you, imagined as alien othered.
I’m personally reluctant to use the term ‘saneism’ because I don’t feel qualified to make that call, but there’s a lot of language in this book that assumes a very simple mental health binary and puts things like plurality or low-empathy living in the ‘bad’ bucket. Note that this doesn’t really take into account that most D&D adventuring parties are composed of homeless murderers.
Part of the challenge in finding horror topics for this month has been finding game related things that I found actually legitimately horrifying. Things that I found creepy, things that I found that were capable of giving me that prickle on the skin, rather than just wearing the trappings of the horrific. There are lots of horrifying videogames, lots of games that want to be horrifying, but so few of them really make me feel it.
Let me show you then, the book that heralded the end of the world for 3.5 D&D, and went out with a howl.
You wake up one morning and find tragedy has struck. A member of the village, someone you know, a family member perhaps, is dead, laying spread out guts and all in the town square. The savagery and the ferocity of it, coupled with the signs of a struggle point to one horrible cause.
There’s a werewolf in town – at least one.
And now, you have to do what you can to stop it killing again.
You don’t know who you can trust. You know you’re okay. So you point fingers. You watch who reacts. You demand people explain themselves, justify themselves, watch who aligns quickly, or not quickly enough. There’s arguments. Rage. Recrimination. Indignation. In the end, the whole village pick someone, and string them up, hanging them by the town square.
And then, in the night, the werewolves rouse, and claim another victim.
Board games are, for me, mostly, an element of a loaf. Friends are around, we have board games, test and see what people are into and then we go for it. Sometimes my board games go into a bag and travel with me to my parents’ place and they don’t get played and that’s okay. Usually ‘board games’ mean playing a few different games in one spot. Very few games I own really qualify as the kind of thing it’s worth making into any kind of event.
I have one that can, though.
And it’s one of the best games of its type to get you into playing board games.
One day, everyone was all about Heat Signature.
God, you people.
Sometimes when you talk about a game, it’s easy to fall into the same model of examining the thing based on what it’s trying to do (like with Deus Ex) or its place in history (like with Ziggurat). You can sometimes examine a game based on its themes or its story, and those are all valid ways to examine a game.
Yet I have made the case that games are too large to have single defining characteristics. That I found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hollow and dull isn’t the same thing as saying that the game was bad, not really, not in any kind of definitive way, it just tells you that I found it kinda dim and if you care about things I care about in games, you will probably find it unsatisfying. Anyone could find something in the work and take that perception in its own direction and so on and that’s the glory of media criticism and games journalism.
When examining Fallout 2, not only is that game now far too large to have a single defining trait, it’s also part of a piece of gaming history, a legacy that also destroys the ability of the critic to meaningfully give a truly broad perspective of it in a meaningful context. To write about Fallout 2 comprehensively would be a book, not an article.
Instead, what if we focus on something in a game?
What if we dug down into just one thing about a game?
Let’s talk about The Highwayman. Continue reading
Okay, I’ve burrowed down on some specific points in games. Like how I used Hyrule Warriors to discuss hyperintertextuality, which sucks, or how I’m going to use Skyrim to talk about Rick Astley (that’s a teaser). And I’ve done a bit of a historical thing on Commander Keen 1, based on the video about stimulated recall, and if you get into it, Commander Keen 2 isn’t really a tangibly different game.
If I wanted to explain to you how Commander Keen 2 worked, or what it was doing or its values, I’d have to really pull out the shovels and get into it, to dig deep, to really go out of my way to pick at some seriously tiny nit, and you’d have to be pretty weird, and pretty obssessive about the details in old videogames to care about that kind of thing. I mean, you’d have to be a real dork and isn’t this just overthinking, isn’t this the kind of obssessive detail-oriented comma-fricking that we disdain when people do it of high-faluting fancy academic books and frame-by-frame movie analysese.
Anyway, so I’m going to do that.
You know what Wolfenstein 3D is. Probably. if you don’t, here’s your basic rundown.
Wolfenstein 3D is a classic first-person shooter game that was both pretty good and thanks to shareware, widely distributed. One of the games made by id Software, as part of their arc of changing the face of PC gaming, Wolfenstein 3D was a spiritual successor to an old stealth game on the Apple II and other platforms, Castle Wolfenstein. The game started with you trapped in a dungeon full of nazis, with a limited toolset to escape that was, basically, killing nazis.
There, okay, we all done with the basics? Don’t need me explaining graph paper and stuff? Cool. Moving on!
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.
Pokemon games are honestly pretty perfect.
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
Ian Bogost likes Animal Crossing.
Wait, don’t go!
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, Continue reading
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.
Shut Up and Sit Down did a comically in-depth review of this game where they pretended to take it all super duper seriously on like, an academic level, but I’m kind of… not… really… kidding? when I bring this game up as a wonderful example of the kind of stepping stone you can use to make sure designers recognise the importance of materiality and base assumptions in their game designs.
C’mon, I’ll explain.
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.
My work 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.