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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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’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.