The makers of the once great, and now steadily-declining, Assassin’s Creed series say “f*** it” and take a sharp turn into goofyland. This is just … go ahead, watch it and see for yourself.
What follows is a column I wrote for a technology magazine. I’ve written the same column since about 1996, and it was the first ever rejected. It was also the second to last column I wrote. They didn’t say they were dropping me because of it, and I didn’t press the issue because, honestly, the new editor was a jerk about it (he didn’t even bother telling me I was fired: I had to find out by accident) and I wasn’t interested in continuing any longer. But, as they say in politics, the timing was suspect.
I’ve left this column as I wrote it so you can see how very mild and balanced it was, with a tone chosen to get a message across to a secular (potentially hostile) audience. I’ve certainly covered political and controversial issues in the same place before, and my previous editors at the magazine liked me to stir things up because it got people engaged. It was not out line considering what I’ve done in the past. I even cued the controversy in the column assuming my editors would back me, just to acknowledge that the subject was more challenging than others I’d tackled, but we’re grownup and can talk about grownup things.
The game itself was gibberish: moral relativism encapsulated in interactive form. But that wasn’t the issue I was tackling here, because frankly that issue would have been inappropriate for that audience. Although I may be an opinionated so-and-so, I’m also professional with 25 years experience. I don’t pitch pieces about video cards to a Catholic newspaper and I don’t do moral theology for a computer magazine.
What I wanted to get across was that interactive media can tackle serious issues in a personal, potentially powerful way. Pregnancy is not a good example of it. It’s overwrought, morally confused, and poorly constructed. Really, it’s pretty much junk. However, the creator took a chance and made something personal in an unexpected medium, and that deserved some recognition.
Games as Moral and Political Dialog
I am pro-life, and comprehensively so. I believe that America’s drone war is monstrous, capital punishment is immoral, “enhanced interrogation” is a disgusting euphemism for barbaric acts of torture, and killing another human being is murder, whether or not that human being is inside a mother’s womb or out.
Most people who would agree with the first three things I just wrote would not agree with the last, and many who believe passionately in the last would not accept the first three.
The issues are so fraught and polarizing that I had doubts that Maximum PC would even run this column. We can’t really talk to each other any more: we just kind of talk past each other, conditioned by a poisonous media/political environment that can only grasp binaries and not subtleties, and makes ideology, rather than our shared humanity, the polestar for all controversy.
That’s why I found reactions to a little game called “Pregnancy” kind of fascinating. It’s on Steam for $2, and is a lightly interactive short-story with minimal graphics and a playing time of about 15 minutes.
This is just the kind of game I wrote about in the March issue: small titles that are as personal as a blog post, and take about as long to experience. They use the medium of “games” (very broadly defined) for purposes of personal expression and to explore ideas in a new way.
As a game, “Pregnancy” isn’t particularly good, with bland visuals, some wobbly dialog, and a description of a rape that’s too graphic for the context. You play as the conscience of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated, experiencing her thoughts and experiences as she wrestles with what to do. You can encourage her in one way or another, but for some really bizarre reason she always chooses the opposite of your council. Tell her about her strength and the preciousness of life, and she has an abortion. Tell her everything is going to be awful and she keeps the baby. The final screen provides an equal number of resources for exploring both the pro-life and the pro-abortion side. The idea is to show that whatever we believe or argue, individuals will make their own choices for their own reasons, but it was a bit of a muddle in the end.
The reactions of some gamers are more interesting than the game itself. I read comments from people offended that the choice was even being offered since OBVIOUSLY you would [insert what commenter thinks you should do here], thus missing the point of making this experience interactive. I also found people angry that a trivial medium like a “game” would be used for such an important issue.
But, of course, that’s exactly what small games should be doing: using new media to discuss fraught issues. I doubt it will change people’s minds in the long run, but using the game format to speak to controversy in a fresh way is exactly what indie developers should be doing.
Pawn Sacrifice is a new film from Edward Zwick about the brilliant, disturbed chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. Tobey Maguire plays Fischer and Liev Schrieber plays his nemesis, Boris Spassky. Here’s the trailer:
Some viewers may be puzzled by the prominence of a Catholic priest in the trailer.
Lombardy was an International Grandmaster who finished second to Fischer in the 1961 US Championship. Rather than taking his well-earned place in the international qualifiers, he retired and entered the priesthood. He left ministry to marry in the 1980s.
He began coaching Fischer as a child, and when Fischer found himself in the spotlight in his legendary 1972 match against Spasky, he called Lombardy for help. Lombardy got permission to take a break from his priestly duties and flew to Reykjavik to help stabilize the troubled genius. He acted as Fischer’s “second” and is credited with getting Fischer through the match. He was coach, analyst, and friend, and it’s unlikely Fischer would have completed the competition without him.
Fischer’s religious beliefs were notoriously erratic. Born Jewish, he later became a raving anti-Semite, joined the Worldwide Church of God, left it in a huff, and may (or may not: stories vary) have been a Catholic at his death.
The rise of indie game development leads to all kinds of strange and fascinating mashups of game genres that no major studio would ever put together. There’s a good reason for that: shoving deckbuilding, choose-your-own-adventure, and arena combat into one game will result in a hot mess unless it’s done with great skill.
Well, the folks at Defiant have that skill, because Hand of Fate (Defiant Development, Teens and up, Xbox One/PS4/PC/Mac: $25) all three of those things in one package, and it’s a blast.
The game shifts between a card-playing engine and third-person combat. You sit across the table from a dealer who controls the game. He places cards on the table to form the steps through a dungeon, with different cards triggering encounters and attacks. In addition, he’ll play cards to throw some extra challenges your way, and deal out a kind of three-card monty that can increase or diminish your chances for success.
Meanwhile, you have your own deck, which grows as you go through different levels and defeat a sequence of bosses. This deck can be customized at the outset of each game, allowing you tailor your approach. Cards feature different game elements that are drawn, such as food and health to keep you going, weapons and armor, and other features. As you progress through the story, your character gains more sophisticated attacks and better equipment to meet the challenges of increasingly fierce foes.
Different stages of your journey are accompanied by text descriptions of characters or events, allowing you to choose an action than can draw you deeper into an side adventure, or just letting you trade for a special item.
The final major element in this strangely appealing soup is the combat engine. When it’s time to fight the battle indicate by the cards in play, the game drops into a respectable-looking 3D combat engine. The system plays like a simplified version of the Batman games, with turns, attacks, and blocks timed to counter a variety of monsters. Some might find this a jarring transition, but it really adds a bit of flavor and excitement to the card play, even if the encounters grow slightly repetitive in the long haul.
The total effect of all these elements is to draw the player into a randomly generated duel with a dungeon master and then bring that duel to life with combat and storytelling. It’s quite a neat feat.
I’ve been kind of scattershot about covering games and fun stuff here, but I’m planning to try a Fun Friday feature for a month and see if it’s of any interest. If you like it, give it a share on social media. If the traffic seems to warrant continuing, I will.
My first entry is a little gem that I had on backorder for ages, only to appear in the mail just as Games Magazine, where I was Editor-at-Large for about 17 years, was being shut down. It’s like it arrived just to taunt me.
Reiner Knizia’s classic little volume Dice Games Properly Explained (Blue Terrier Press: $15) packs 150 games into just over 200 pages, and is the best book about its subject in print. Dr. Knizia is the multi-awarding winning designer of more than 500 games, including hits like Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, Lord of the Rings, and many others. With this book, he gives serious consideration to the simplest and oldest form of gaming: rolling dice.
Games that are heavy on dice rolling tend to be shunned by more serious games as being nothing more than a dull cycle of repetitive actions and almost entirely based on luck. Knizia says this is the wrong way to think of it. He divides the book roughly in half between games of luck, “where you have no control over the outcome,” but which still provide suspense and fun, and games of influence, “where you determine your destiny.”
The first four chapters tackle games of luck, with an intermission as Knizia explains the theory of dice and odds. In the realm of “luck,” he offers chapters on scoring games, counter games, and betting games.
One example of a scoring game is Ninety-nine. Someone selects a number between 33 and 99. Each player rolls five dice and then tries to get as close to that number as possible by any application of math, using each rolled number only once. So, for example, if the target number is 83, a roll of 1-3-3-4-6 can be used to make 81 by (6+1) x 4 x 3 – 3.
Most of the games described don’t require that much calculation, and as Knizia moves into the next chapters, counters become a central part of each game’s strategy, and the various ins and outs of casino dice games are considered.
The second half of the book offers chapters about progression, jeopardy, strategic category, and bluffing games. In these examples, luck plays less of a role and players make choices and attempt to influence outcomes. The best known example of a strategic category game is Yacht, packaged and sold as Yahtzee, and offered here with myriad variations. Progression and jeopardy games frequently rely on hitting a target number without going over, but with enough variants and twists to keep things fresh and interesting.
The book was hard to come by for a time, even though the Blue Terrier Press edition doesn’t appear to have gone out of print. It’s available once again on Amazon, which makes this a great opportunity to get it while you can.
Here’s on more example, called Hearts Due:
Any number of people can play, but it’s best for three to five. You need six dice and a notepad for scoring.
On your turn, throw all six dice, then score fie points for each die that belongs to a sequence. Sequences always start with the number 1 and continue with consecutive numbers. A single 1 scores 5 points, 1-2 scores 10, 1-2-3 scores 15 and so on. If a throw contains multiple 1s and more than one sequences, score them all. First person to hit 100 points wins.
Variant rules: 1) Anyone who rolls three 1s loses all points. 2) 1s don’t score, so you start with 5 points for 1-2, and then progress.
Most of these are simple games, which means they’re good for kids (homeschoolers may find some of the games particularly useful for reinforcing math lessons), warm-ups, a quick bit of fun, bar play, and of course, betting, which is where most dice games have their roots.
Monument Valley (Ustwo; iOS/Android: $4) is a small game. It won’t take you long to finish, and it’s not very challenging, but what it offers is such a pure delight that it became my personal favorite game of 2014. Indeed, I would argue that it was the best game published all year, and for an iPad-only puzzle game, that’s quite an achievement.
People are throwing most of their 2014 GOTY awards at Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have no problem with that: it’s an impressive piece of work. I may be just suffering Bioware fatigue, but I’ve had enough Biodialog-trees and Biorelationships and Biocombat and Bioquests to hold me for a while. Honestly, if I had to pick an RPG that I enjoyed more than any other this year, Inquisition would have taken a backseat to Legend of Grimrock II. Endless Legend also would have been ahead of Inquisition.
Monument Valley offered something different and simple and appealing, and I like that more and more the older I get. It’s an example of a game that is more about the experience than the challenge. None of the puzzles in either the original game or the Forgotten Shores add-on will stop serious puzzlers for more than a few minutes. Altogether, the play time probably adds up to about two hours at the most. The appeal is in the quality, not the quantity: in the experience rather than in the difficulty.
The visual style of Monument Valley is what grabs you first. Drawn with clean lines and sharp angles, it packs a lot of information into its shifting, single-screen puzzles. The most obvious comparison is with the artwork of surrealist MC Escher. His impossible architecture is at the heart of Monument Valley’s world and its puzzles.
You guide a little princess in a conical hat through ten worlds (with another seven in the add-on), attempting to get her from the beginning to the end. Each screen is given a chapter number and title, with a subtitle that hints at a “story” that never develops and only provides another layer of atmospheric mystification.
It’s not a wholly unpopulated world. The Bothersome Crow People walk set patterns that either block your path forward or enable you to trigger buttons remotely. There’s a mystic/monk figure offering cryptic comments. And, best of all, you have an occasional companion/helper called Totem. He’s a big-eyed totem pole who provides help with a couple of levels, and when he appears to die, you actual feel a little sad. It’s a game that gets under your skin in weird ways.
Each screen can be manipulated with levers and buttons to alter the configuration of its various structures in impossible ways. As with the work of Escher, a walkway will suddenly turn one direction only to open up access on a completely different plane. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to describe in print, but the result is that you climb through impossible architecture at strange angles, triggering changes in the layout in order to get to the endpoint.
The gentle music, soothing visuals, and dazzling use of space and motion create an otherworldly experience that moves beyond the limits of mere gameplay. Of particular note is Chapter VIII: The Box: the one of the best implementations of a mechanical puzzle box that I’ve ever played in an electronic game.
I’ve certainly played much harder puzzle games, but few that I found quite so enchanting as Monument Valley. Even when the gets a bit dark (and there are storm-tossed seas and deep descents that hint at classic elements of the hero’s story), it stays enjoyable. The key to its appeal is that as a game, it’s content to find a balance among its various aesthetic elements (art, music, animation, structure) and its gameplay, which is mild and refreshing. Careful observation and tinkering will yield a solution pretty quickly, so frustration never overrides the gentle atmosphere. I’ve always argued against games as art, but Monument Valley come closer than most to making me question that opinion.
The World of Playing cards is a terrific site with reproductions of historic cards from around the world. Most recently, they shared Snapshots: A Missionary Card Game from the Church Mission Society circa 1910. It’s described as a basic set-building game of 48 cards with 12 sets from representing different cultural practices around the world. Each set has four cards, each of a different color, showing some aspect of culture in Japan, Sudan, and so on. The goal is to prepare the missionaries to work in these places as they preach the Gospel.
You can find more at World of Playing Cards.
You’d be surprised just how short is the list of jobs for “expert on games: their history and play.” That I held one for a couple decades (until this past Fall) was a blessing, but it also means I still have plenty of stuff kicking around and nowhere to write about it. So, if I stray off topic from time to time and start blathering on about card and dice and such, feel free to skip ahead to the next post.
On my old gaming blog, I did a lot of coverage of playing cards in general and Bicycle (my sponsor) in particular. I still pick up interesting decks now and then, and just bought the Bicycle Escape Map: WWII Commemorative Map Deck.
During the war, the United States Playing Card Company (the people who make Bicycle cards) produced a deck for the British and American intelligence agencies. A map showing escape routes was printed between the two layers of the cards. When the cards were soaked in water, a prisoner could peel apart the layers and assemble the full map like a puzzle.
USPCC has created a usable reproduction of these decks, bringing the map image to the surface and laying it over the card faces. Each deck comes with the complete set of cards, a key to assembling the map, and a short history of the scheme. It’s a cool little package, and perfectly playable even with the map art. You can pick one up at Amazon.
I wrote about the strange little niches of simulation and strategy gaming in Simulating The Mundane, And What It Means. I also noted the appearance of a Street Sweeper simulator, apparently aimed at OCD sufferers who don’t find enough opportunities to make things just right in the real world.
Thanks to Rock Paper Shotgun (the last gaming site I still enjoy), I found this little preview video of the upcoming Farming Simulator 15, and I’m not gonna lie to you, I find it entrancing, and not just because of the jaunty music that accompanies the images of tree butchery:
I’ve made an effort to “get” farming games, but I just can’t. This, however, is like the Great Tree Massacre. As RPS points out, you’re running a machine called the Ponnse ScorpionKing (!), as it clutches and mutilates trees with a manic and ruthless efficiency.
Dub some screams in there and These Kids Today might think it’s some weird new kind of shooter: Dendrohomicidal!