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.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos is a 1986 text adventure videogame, produced by Infocom, written by Steven Meretzky, and it exists entirely because of a whiteboard joke that nobody in the room said ‘hey, maybe let’s just not?’ to enough times. In this 1930s schlock sci-fi inspired ‘sex farce’ game, you get to explore locations like Mars, Venus, and Cleveland.
It was, ostensibly, one of a small number of sexy text adventure games from that period of time, produced by Infocom. It boasted a scratch-and-sniff feely, and a setting for its content ranging from ‘tame’ to ‘lewd.’
It’s also a sex comedy written by a couple of dudes that dates back to 1986.
Jenga’s a pretty solid game. I mean, it’s going on fifty years old, it’s simple, it’s really cheap because every company can make their own version easily. It’s one of those games you’ll see in a dollar store as some company makes their own version of it. Jenga is definitely a success and I think it’s reasonable to say, if you like having a board game collection, it’s a good idea to have a Jenga-like game there.
I don’t own Jenga. And now, I don’t think I’m going to.
I am not going to be able to tell you anything comprehensive about Wingspan. This game was a phenomenon when it launched, it was so successful it spawned conspiracy theories and it defined the conversation about games, their distribution, kickstarter and things like ‘elasticity’. There is no reason, in particular, to want my opinion of Wingspan, per se.
For this game, I thought rather than just put my thoughts out there about the game (I didn’t like it until I suddenly really liked it, it has an interesting vision of the future as experientially procedural, it’s cyberpunk as hell), I should take this opportunity to bring forward Corey, who has thoughts on games where perception, world experience, and communication are important.
And that is, by the way, pretty much all of them.
Anyway, so we talked for twenty minutes or so about Katana Zero and how it metaphorises hyperfocus.
If you’d like a full-sized version of that thumbnail, here:
You should go check out Corey, on Twitter, and encourage him to get a website or blog of his own to talk about stuff in a way that isn’t Heck Birdsite.
Hypothetically, you could run a list of all the Game Pile Articles and know everything I’ve covered, already.
Which I do.
The original purpose of the Game Pile was to serve as a direct accounting of every game I played from my at the time unmanageably large Steam collection. I didn’t look at that collection for years, and now, over the starting on eight years of this blog, I have been using the Game Pile as a category to talk about games, and things, and things about games, and using games to talk about things. Part of getting this pile under control was playing a lot of them, and part of it was building familiarity with Steam’s tools.
I have a category I put games in when I’m done with them: ‘Completed.’ At the moment, on Steam, I have 324 games outside of that category, and 434 games in that category, meaning that in the context of Steam, I have more than half completed my Game Pile. It has obviously grown in this time, and I’m sure it will grow a little by the time the Steam Winter sale ends. This isn’t accounting for my Itch collections, or the physical boardgames that are also sometimes included, or just random flash games or folk games I talk about too.
Still, the Steam list is a large volume of things, and at the end of each year, I do run through some games and look at the stuff I moved to the Completed category that I haven’t written about, and have in fact, committed to not bothering to write about.
I haven’t done any full-blown revisits yet. I used to do ‘Deeper in the Pile,’ back when I was interested in parleying this blog into a journalism job. The idea was that the Game Pile posts would be entertaining reviews, then the Deeper in the Pile posts would examine things in the game in greater depth. Sometimes I use a remastered edition as an excuse to go back on a game, but otherwise, it’s pretty much that if I didn’t talk about a game and moved it into completed, there was a reason.
Well, it’s the end of the year (oh no, writing forward into the future revealed) and I’m tired, so let’s talk about some games that weren’t interesting enough to merit a full article. As with all of these, though, once I put the thoughts out there, I may come around to a new idea and realise that hey, no, here’s an academic concept or a game design idea I can totally use, and they’ll get pulled out of storage. Who knows!
Obviously, of all the articles I wrote this year in the Game Pile, they are all good. You should read all of them. Still, there are some that stand out as I think super cuts of the kinds of writing I like to do. Rather than just reiterate the entire category, because I trust you to be able to press navigation buttons, here are some highlights that may make it easier for you to find some stuff to read.
First of all there are some Game Piles that deserved special mention because they were about games I really enjoyed. It’s hard sometimes to write about great games because my typical methods for game analysis is to nag at something the game does that’s interesting, and I feel that lens is best set to give games that didn’t get attention the first time around a shot.
Still, there are a handful of games where I was just flummoxed by how great they were, and so the writing was about writing around them, or about their interface, or about the experiences of watching other people play them. For those, check out my articles on Lanterns, Spaceshipped, and Purrlock Holmes.
Halloween Forever was one of my game videos this year, and the game itself kicks ass and it was a good avenue to talk about something weird from my childhood that is, in a way, super weird. The thing about this one that I love in hindsight is just how charming the game was, and how, when I played it, I just had a simple thread of something weird to talk about. I played it, then recorded the audio, then stitched them together. It was a really great little gem to find in the Black Lives Matter Itch bundle.
I also got to use this year as a chance to talk about the Ur-Quan from Star Control 2. That’s something I want to do more of, with the Game Pile being a platform for some in-depth examinations of game lore of games I really love.
Volume, I learned about this year. I mean I bought it years ago and got around to playing it now and holy crap this game got to be really timely considering. It’s such an excellent stealth game, it deserves special attention. It has such wonderful voice acting, great characters, and also it’s about actual corporate fascism and stagnation of upward mobility.
There was and an expansion to a card game I love, Star Realms Frontiers. This was a really interesting one because I committed to buying all the expansions for the phone game – because hey, I knew I loved Frontiers – and then came to realise that I had hit the wall on how much Star Realms I wanted. Frontiers is great, get it and the base game, it’ll do you fine – but the rest? Just get them on the phone game, and let it handle storing them.
So yeah, there’s a bonus review: Star Realms? Two great box products… the rest probably just a great app.
There are some articles where I think they serve as examples of things that are deeply important to the conversation about games. One example is my article about Overwhelm. That article is about a game that just whips ass, which is great, then it brought in a friend’s advice about how players relate to games, and then it got to show how good its accessibility tools are when you actually use them to make the game more accessible. It was a valuable lesson to me about how I approach games, and how I let my ego waste my time.
I also had a bit of a weird thing with Metroidvania games this year, of open world exploration games that keep you engaged and build on your skillset, where I tried Hollow Knight, but simply didn’t get attached enough to the game to finish what, the third, or fourth boss? Which was a shame, and I thought at first I had just lost something of myself that works for Metroidvanias.
Then I played Carrion.
Carrion was excellent. I at first thought I wasn’t going to even play it, because everyone I knew had already played it, I had limited time and energy, and like, what am I going to say that beats Cass’ oh no now they’re going to eat meeee post over on Polygon?
Then my sister Rachel told me to play it, and I played it and I kept playing it, and I went to bed at 5 am and I woke up and played it and then I put it down and wrote one of my favourite articles about the way this game encourages you to relate your body to the world of it, and the philosophy of meat.
There’s a special mention in all of this of Ai: The Somnium Files, which also followed a pattern for this year where a friend asked me to play it. It was particularly important in this case, though, because she wanted to talk to someone about it, and was stymied by her problem with the extreme level of content warning problems it had. I checked it out, thought ‘oh a visual novel? don’t expect to like that,’ but I could see a chance to play it, so I played it.
And I loved it.
I loved it so much that I redid my schedule to play the game and make a video about it and promote it. I loved it so much that I made fan merchandise of the characters. I loved it so much that there’s someone who uses a character from it as their twitter avatar and it just makes me more inclined to check that they’re doing okay which is patently silly.
It isn’t a game I’m going to replay a lot, because it’s very good about making sure you get most of the content on one thorough play through. But it’s such a good game I’m going to recommend it, and look to games by the same people for the same kind of wonderful experiences.
This is another conversation video; sharing with Positronic Woman, Rachel S, about her game of choice, Destiny 2. Due to copyright reasons and not wanting this interrupted with ads, I went with the simpler ‘bunch of wallpapers footage’ than using Destiny 2 ad footage.
Last year when I spoke about games in Da Ween, I talked about games that could be played in a group, or a family environment, in ways that didn’t need you to spend much money, and also could last for a few minutes more before some stupid asshole said ‘let’s play Cards Against Humanity.‘
Nowadays, there’s a good chance that you’re going to be doing your family gathering over discord or god help you, Zoom (augh). If that’s the case, then you might want to look into some game you can play, in a shared space that doesn’t require people to install games, or manage network settings, or click on ‘join’ and wait a lobby and we all know how long it can be to wait for Grandma to decide what her draft bans are on the way to the Rift.
Still, there’s a game you can play, on the internet, with your family, and if someone disengages or isn’t interested and you have other people still paying attention it won’t hold things up long.
This is a free game you can play in your browser, with your friends. At its core, it is a pictionary-style game, where you can draw with your tablet, your mouse, or your phone or whatever, and draw a picture, or guess at what someone else is drawing.
I’ve talked in the past about drawing games, and how they’re communication games? How the core of what you’re doing is trying to understand someone. With skribbl, the game you’re playting incentivises you to guess correctly quickly, so there’s a reason to want to engage people, but also, rounds are fast, so that if you’re struggling with guessing, there’s a push to start guessing together. You’ll see other people’s guesses, too, and, Wheel-of-Fortune style, you get some text to fill in so you know the size of the word, or breaks in the word, that you’re gunning for.
It’s a great little game, it’s free, it’s convenient.
Hey, this December, I’m going to try and make sure that I talk a little bit about games that you don’t necessarily need a lot of money to play. I liked how I did some folk games last year and I thought this year, since social distancing is a thing, that it was worth my while pointing out some ways you can have fun, online, and ideally socially.
This is obviously not the easiest thing in the world, but the good news for me at least is that just in the tail end of November, City of Heroes: Homecoming launched a whole new issue, ‘Issue 27’ and that makes it a great time to talk about that, and how to get involved if you want to.
When you dig into the history of most art forms, there’s a very clear point where our records go ‘here b dragons.’ When it comes to film, we’re pretty confident that roughly half of all film from the silent era is just lost, and all the record keeping and attribution is deterioated and badly kept and it sucks. That’s film, a medium that’s reasonably new. When it comes to videogames, though, thanks to a combination of existing privilege structures and the inherently replicable nature of internet data, there are parts of the history of videogames that are preserved remarkably well.
This means that there are some times when the spread of videogames can kind of look like a sort of sequence of little popular explosions. First Person games tended towards RPGs until the little lineage shown in Children of Doom by Campster. You can often point to instigatory events that caused specific sequences of triggered events because games actually document their inspirations or technological licensing of engines and whatnot. That creates an interesting, almost cladistic model of game development. You can point to small windows of time when lots of games happened really quickly, and see the ways they’re related to one another.
It’s often seen that the 90s were the day of the FPS, but there were other genres, other unfolding branches of the tree, and one of them happened in strategy games. There was a tend towards war games being slow, turn based, mathy and strategic affairs, until the creation of Dune 2 (1992) and the (comparatively) slow follow-the-leader from Warcraft: Orcs Vs Humans in 1994 and then Command & Conquer in 1995.
That’s right, folks.
We’re going to talk about a strategy game.
We’re going to talk about a real time strategy game.
We’re going to talk about one of the Australian made real time strategy games from the late 90s.
Little by little, I’ve been working through the Commander Keen franchise, the PC Platformer that started out with a mathematical space-folding nonsense of a smooth-scrolling EGA platform game, and moved on to just being The Way The Lights Stayed On for many months at id software.
In World of Warcraft, you can reliably expect that your character has reasonably recently been sent out to the task of handling something’s poo.
World of Warcraft is a videogame, a Massive Multipalyer Online Roleplaying Game that, statistically speaking, if you are reading this, you have played and also, statistically, you are not playing right now. It’s a piece of gaming history and landscape and culture all at once – something that most people involved in videogames and game studies knows about, has opinions on. It is a common metaphor, a Game of Thrones event every time an expansion drops, it is the backround radiation of the MMORPG community discourse, even as it has been outmoded and replaced. Last year, an entire fuss was made about World of Warcraft opening up a service that let you play the game as it was ten years ago, and that ‘behold an old game with less worse stuff’ was a news cycle for months.
But it is also a content platform. People log in to World of Warcraft to spend that day reading stories, or engaging in combat against other players, or accruing resources, or managing crafting or manipulating markets, and all that stuff was different types of content.
There’s this enduring line from Marshall Mcluhan’s Understanding Media that The Medium is the Message. It’s a oft repeated phrase because it sounds kind of meaningless outside of the conversation it’s from, and that can be used as a confusing sort of wedge to force the conversation open. It’s a ramp of a phrase, a line that helps introduce the idea that it needs explaining.
The idea it outlines is that medium is the thing that really changes the world. We talk about the idea of works of art transforming the world, but seldom about how the task of displaying that art transformed the world first. The impact of a painting is hard to compare to the impact of the museum made to house it. Television shows and videogames may be fantastic art, but isn’t the deformation presented by everyone having a TV and then everyone having a phone the greater impact on society at large?
It is in this regard that World of Warcraft, a game, is perhaps best viewed as instead a platform for the delivery of content. There’s a host of different voices and different kinds of content being put into it, and you can extrapolate how those things relate to one another and learn all kinds of things based not on the work of any single piece of content, but rather, the trends of content. How often does this story about a conflict between two parties get interrupted with a greater common interest? How often are two sides presented as equals in the conflict despite one being a slave-keeping colonist and the other the victims of mass mind control? And, as is pertinent here, how often does this game present you with a chance to handle poop?
This was going to be a video.
This was going to be a video, but the project outgrew what I could meaningfully and easily do in ten minutes. It went from being a short little idea that I could present as a series of shots, cutting from quest to quest in the narrative in World of Warcraft. Maybe even play through it, arc to arc, a character progressing from level 1 through to level 120, but that is hundreds of hours. When the idea first occurred to me, I went checking, and found that those blessed folks over on Wowpedia have already noticed this trend, and presented a comprehensive list of those quests. This is not a comprehensive list, per se, though; this is just a set of quests which relate to directly clicking on or moving around poop. There are other quests, such as is presented in Cataclysm‘s Mount Hyjal zone, where one of the quest givers is a magician trapped inside an outhouse, for poop related reasons. This is therefore, not a perfect sampling of poop quests per se, but it’s a good overview.
Some questions then: Are the Poop Quests concentrated? Is there a single place in the story that is particularly poopy? Well, the good news is, we can chart this stuff. Over the years of WoW’s lifespan, there have been poop quests in every expansion, and it’s always more than one.
This is particularly strange, because the nature of an expansion in WoW is when your boundaries and limits and the worst monsters you could fight, in the last expansion, are suddenly outmoded; narratively, there’s some side-eye to it, where you kind of ignore that you hit a level cap and then moved on to another zone where the mundane problems compared to the end-of-expansion problems of your past. Yet in each of these new expansions, in a new time and a new place, you’re introduced to some quest that is literally one of the most mundane, least heroic tasks people do. And it’s always contextualised as somehow worth your time – magic or money are the usual excuses.
But World of Warcraft keeps on bringing you back to sifting through something’s poo.
This here’s an experiment! This video was made with a strict time limit: Create something in half an hour. This means no script and minimal sound editing. There is one thing about it that bugs me – the game audio wasn’t being recorded and I didn’t check that until it was too late. I like this, and may do a few more like this if it continues to be this easy.
It’s got other names. Runoff was one I played a lot in the MS Dos game days. There was also Oil Spill and Lava Flow. It became a Windows title, and had names like Pipe Mania or Pipes! and related games like Laser Squad, the same sort of general construction puzzle game where you had a source to flow from and you had to construct from that source to achieve some end. Usually, these games were timer based, sometimes they were limited components based. Perhaps most famously, Bioshock used the Pipe Dream mechanics to represent their hacking mini games.
These types of games are in my mind as path constructors. And you know, they’re an underexplored genre.
Bit Rat Singularity is meant to be a kind of teaser game. It’s a smaller game than you’d expect, with probably fewer levels than you might like if you’re a hardcore puzzler. I’m not, I’m not great at this kind of puzzle, but I still had fun playing it, exploring it, and listening to the story the game presented.
It’s a path constructor, but rather than connecting pipes so water can flow through it, you’re connecting nodes on a network. Great, a simple expansion, and an existing one we’ve seen in other games like Uplink. In this case, the network is simplified, all the rules are abstracted, and once you get the basics handled, it starts to introduce things like limitations on how many nodes you can maintain, how you can connect them to one another, managing different resources as you try to construct your path out of the level.
It’s a great execution and part of what I love about it is that the game is often about constructing destructive pathways. Sometimes, to get your path to the end to work, you have to wreck what you’ve made – sometimes risking marooning yourself while you work, using one or two temporary measures that you need to dismantle, step by step, in the right order, which makes the whole thing more interesting than just a linear ‘from A to B.’
There’s a narrative that ties into the idea of retrotech, that sort of ‘a past’s vision of a different future,’ where you’re dealing with big chunky server boxes that managed to create, and lose track of, a sentient AI. You’re that AI, and you’re making your way out of the space you’re in, with variable degrees of menace as you befriend the rats that live in the place. There are employees you may need to puppet a little bit, because, uh, they have chips in their head, and it’s all presented as a result of massive breakdown in the culture of the company.
I got this game as part of the Bundle for Racial Justice and equality. It’s only $2. It’s a really good little game, and odds are good, you bought that bundle and didn’t really check everything in it out. I’m trying to make a project of checking games in this bundle, because it’s full of gems, and it’s worth it to look at them, and think about how all these games, all these products, are made by people, and those people wanted to sign up to give away something to try and help this problem we’re dealing with.
You’re not alone in the struggle. There are so many people who don’t want the world to be like this.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but everything happens so much, and there can be all kinds of complicated problems in the way of our plans and projects. While I talk about it a little bit in the video, this month (last year), I wanted to play the Jane Jensen game Gray Matter, and do a video on it. That became too hard to do as acquiring the game at first, and eventually, a whole year later, I finally got around to the game.
The plan for this month was always going to do a chill let’s play game. I was just going to play the game for a bit, hang out, and talk about it. I did so, and what I wound up with was a video that is definitely a bit disappointing, because I hit a wall in the game super early.
Don’t worry, I intend to return to this game, maybe even more thoroughly next Magic Month. I don’t think the game is a lost cause. Just this is sometimes, how these things go, and why you’re more likely to see me playing games I’ve played many times, and write about games I played for the first time.
I remember really anticipating Volume when it was on the horizon after how much I loved Thomas Was Alone, which I wrote about seven years ago (gosh, seven years ago, amazing, and look at how the Game Pile posts have changed!). But strangely, when it did drop, I didn’t get it – maybe 2015 was just a bad year for me for handling new stuff. This one slipped me by, I bought it at some intervening sale with an idea of I’ll get to it.
And I didn’t.
And now I got to it, and I’m kicking myself, but also, kind of glad I took so long to get around to it? Because freed from the need to have a hard opinion about it early, free from the need to rush through it, to get it perfect to validate my opinion of it, I am free to just look at Volume and how it makes me feel and get a really stupid, goofy smile on my face.
Okay, so Hugo’s House of Horrors was a shareware adventure game distributed in the early 90s, with an honestly admirable monetisation model: When you quit the game, the game mentioned to you that the person who made it would appreciate it if you registered it. If you did register it, with a small fee, they’d send you all three games in the series, registered, and… that was it. There were no special offers or extra bonuses for getting a registered version of the game, no bug fixes, just… the same game, without that screen at the end.
Like I said, honestly admirable. You let people play your game, and you give ’em a little message at the end saying, eheeeey, how about twenty bucks? You get a hint book.
The problem that follows on this is that these games struggle to reach the lofty heights of not bad, and one of them, in particular, has one of the most enraging things I’ve ever dealt with in a videogame, a videogame detail for which I hold a grudge, a grudge that has lasted for over twenty years.
Okay, but what are the games.
At the root, Hugo’s games are sequels to the first game, Hugo’s House of Horrors, where you play Hugo whose girlfriend, Penelope, has been abducted and taken to a house full of monsters. You go into the house, solve puzzles, avoid monster, pick up items, answer some riddles, and move on. It’s also a poorly future-proofed design, because some of the puzzles mostly only are solvable to people who were adults by the 1980s, based on retro TV shows, or they’re stupidly easy because you’d just google questions like ‘who was the Lone Ranger’s dog?’
Then there was the sequel, Hugo 2, Whodunnit, which wound up being a game that had a serious enough seeming subject matter and a low enough price point (free) that growing up, a lot of people I knew had it. And that mean that when I, a little kid, visited their homes and they wanted to keep me busy, I wound up playing Whodunnit a lot. I got pretty good at it, but I always got walled at the same puzzle. And this is a game with multiple mazes, including one of your classic ‘don’t touch the moving bees, don’t touch the lines on the ground’ sets of terrible vintage puzzles. Oh, and the solution to those was to save and restore, and save and restore.
The game was advertised as a mystery; at the start of the game, you witness a murder, which makes you faint, and then you find yourself trapped in the wrong part of the house. You have to then get back into the house, find your partner – Hugo from the first game, because in this one, you play Penelope, the lady – and hopefully solve the murder, based on what you see on the way in. That’s not a terrible premise for a game.
I wanted to talk about some point-and-click or adventure games that have a sort of magical or heisty air this month, because the adventure game is the perfect genre for doing magic tricks. You know, the kind of magic trick where you need to construct materials for a trick that only needs to work once, there’s the room for that kind of nonsense, and there are surprisingly few games that fit the template from the time. Perhaps because, like I said, magic was easier. I could find a few, but not many…
And that meant I found this one, this murder mystery where there is a magic trick, but it’s not one you play. What’s more, it’s one that’s played on you.
See, the thing that walled me in this game, I always figured that I, as a child, just couldn’t work it out. I was dumb, after all. Maybe it’s like the Lone Ranger thing, or the Leisure Suit Larry copy protection that wanted me to know about a President who was gone before I was born.
Twenty years later, I saw someone play this game on a let’s play channel. I watched as they, as if revealing the hole in the bottom of the hat, walked the character down out of sight and picked up the item that was otherwise seen as impassable. There was a ditch on screen, and the character could just walk around it.
this is maddening.
This is terrible.
It isn’t even clever or funny. It’s just there, just some way to delay you that held me up from the game for years, and maybe made that hint book seem like a reasonable purchase.
Here’s the lesson of Hugo 2: When you control the audience’s attention, it behooves you to not misuse it.
Oh, and you didn’t witness a murder, you witnessed people practicing a play.