My Dragon*Con 2014 Experience – Thursday

I’ve never really documented my experiences at conventions before because I usually remember them quite well and take a plethora of photos which I certainly did this year.  However, I couldn’t help but get the writer’s urge (that’s a thing, right?) to write about a lot of the personal details I want to remember for the rest of my life and look back on this post to remind myself just how great of a time I had. For those of you looking for exceptional cosplay photos or details on D*con celebrities or panels- sorry, but these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.  I’m going to be talking about my own experiences, family, friends, and what we did during our labor day weekend to have the best time… until next time, perhaps?

Thursday I awoke at about 4:30am to make a flight out of Boston Logan airport at 6:05 am.  I had been suffering from some pretty bad insomnia coming up on a month then, so it wasn’t difficult to wake up for that or anything, but I was definitely too tired to feel nervous or anxious about missing my flight.  The Boston airport is so small, you enter and walk to your gate in about 20 minutes’ time no matter what day it is.

Sleep-deprived airport selfie.

Sleep-deprived airport selfie.

After getting in, I took MARTAto the Brookhaven stop off of the Doraville train line.  There are only two lines on MARTA in Atlanta:  East/West, and North/South.  But the trains going North from the airport split off into two directions: North Springs (closer to my parent’s house) and Doraville (closer to my brother’s new apartment).  So I headed there to be picked up by my brother.  I was tired, but quite hungry, so he was nice enough to treat me to breakfast/brunch at a Flying Biscuit, a pretty well-known breakfast/brunch chain in Atlanta, in his apartment… area.

I think I had some kind of breakfast omlette... I really don't remember.  But it was delicious.  Look how tired I am; I can barely keep my eyes open.

I think I had some kind of breakfast omlette… I really don’t remember. But it was delicious. Look how tired I am; I can barely keep my eyes open.

After getting stuffed with eggs, biscuits, fruit, and milk, we went to his apartment to kill time until Colin’s flight landed.  My brother had just recently moved into his new apartment, so there were still a few unpacked boxes (sorry to mention it, Danny! haha) but it was a lovely new apartment complex and I longed to jump into the pool even though I hadn’t packed a swimsuit. 😦

An entire summer gone and not once did I enter a body of water. ;_;

An entire summer gone and not once did I enter a body of water. ;_;

Once we got inside, I told him I was very keen on taking a nap until Colin arrived.  As I was falling asleep, I just heard my brother saying something like “did you break the glass?” and I was like, “huh?”.  He said, “sorry, Payday.” and I said, “oh.”  Then I drifted off as I heard him rambling about people being noobs and not declaring ECM runs unless they knew how to do it lol. Anyway, my point is, it was the most comfortable sofa I’d ever slept on in my life and I never wanted to get up from it.  The sleep was refreshing, but it was a double-edged sword because once I got up and got ready, we were running a little late to pick Colin up from Peachtree Center to go and get our D*con tickets early so we could skip that process on Friday!

My brother, Colin, and I once we were parked and heading to the ticket line.

My brother, Colin, and I once we were parked and heading to the ticket line.

I had been following Dragon Con on twitter and they kept re-tweeting other peoples’ comments about the line, or the lack thereof.  I kept telling my brother and Colin that the line was expected to be less than five minutes long… something we were not emotionally or mentally prepared for.  In previous years, getting your ticket, even if you had pre-registered (which everyone else and their grandmother does), takes HOURS.  I wasn’t going to believe it until I saw it.  Well, we got to the Sheraton Hotel where tickets are always distributed and literally got up to the registration booths to acquire our tickets in less than 5 minutes.  It was such a cathartic feeling after all of those years of standing outside in the blistering heat, melting among other sweaty nerds.

The merch line was where it was really at. But we weren't tired. We were TROOPERS.

The merch line was where it was really at. But we weren’t tired. We were TROOPERS.

After grabbing our badges, we decided, heck, if we didn’t have to wait in line for that at all, we might as well wait in line to buy our tickets for next year now.  It’s funny, because the line for the merch booth/where you buy next years’ ticket was a significant wait as opposed to picking up the badges. We stood in line for somewhere around 30 to 40 minutes.  I don’t really remember because we were too busy being wrapped up in our excitement looking over the guest descriptions in the Dragon Con guide and discussing our plans.

Since I can never make it back down to Atlanta the same month for AWA anymore, I had to get the most anime picture I could in front of this standee. lol

Since I can never make it back down to Atlanta the same month for AWA anymore, I had to get the most anime picture I could in front of this standee. lol

After getting our tickets for next year, we decided we needed to rest our feet, have a good sit, and clear our street passes on our Nintendo DSs. We found a nice little secluded area with a sofa and did that for 20 minutes or so before deciding our parking was about to run out!  We made it to the car and out of the lot just in the nick of time to avoid the additional 10 dollar fee.

The drive home brought a lot of nostalgia for me, not that it had been long since I last visited, but just a feeling I get when I’m in Atlanta or near college again.

Not on the way home, but I forgot to include it here, so here is a picture of my favorite exits on GA-400.

Not on the way home, but I forgot to include it here, so here is a picture of my favorite exits on GA-400.

Once we made it home, we were able to relax for an hour or so before heading out to dinner. Colin humored me and let me show him a lot of relics from my childhood that were still in my closet in the, now, guest bedroom. There was still a lot of stuff in there I wanted, but have no room for in my current place of living in Boston.  I swore that someday I would have my collection shipped to me so that I could be reunited with all of my beloved books/toys once again.

My parents planned to take us out to a sushi dinner at one of our favorite establishments- Sushi Nami. Before we went though, I asked Colin if he could take a family photo of us all because, you know, we rarely do, and I feel like if I wasn’t the one to make it happen, we would go years without taking a proper family photo.  That kind of thing means a lot to me, I suppose.  Colin made us all crack up by taking like 30 sequential photos, but it certainly worked and we got some gems out of them.

Colin's theory was: after so many photos, the real smiles start to come out, if not due to the sheer ridiculousness of the photographer, then the subjects letting go of their "photo" faces and showing real happiness.

Colin’s theory was: after so many photos, the real smiles start to come out, if not due to the sheer ridiculousness of the photographer, then the subjects letting go of their “photo” faces and showing real happiness.

I must thank Colin again for taking such great photos of all of us.  I will treasure those for the rest of my life.  Anyway, we went to dinner at Sushi and had an amazing array of food there.  I completely stuffed myself with everything from seaweed salad to scallops, lobster, sweet potato sticks, soba noodle, and sake.

eating6 eating5 eating4 eating3 eating2 eating1

Dinner was incredible, to say in the least. We all went home stuffed and happy. Colin and I may have played a game of Magic… I can’t really remember lol.  What I do remember is that we went to bed very early that night because we had to leave with my mother very, VERY early (5:45?) the next morning to go downtown with her and make our way to Dragon*Con via public transportation.  Oh, I almost forgot!  My mom had made a “healthy” chocolate cake which was absolutely phenomenal and also purchased some scratch-off tickets for us to do just for kicks. I laughed at the thought, because it’s something my mom would do (which I totally appreciate, mom. :)), but the part that was even better was… I actually won $15!  Ha ha!  I rarely win anything, so I was very excited.  Colin and I walked a couple of blocks down to the Publix to retrieve my winnings and pick up a few supplies/snacks for Dragon Con weekend.

This is why they call me E$

This is why they call me E$

Stay tuned for my future, overly-personalized posts about the rest of my Dragon*Con experience. I’m just gettin’ started, here!

JAZZPUNK: A Fantastically Outrageous, Indie Game that Everyone Should Play.

It’s so hard to know where to start with this game, so I’ll jump right in with a little background.  Jazzpunk was created by a DUO, Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse, who established Necrophone games in 2008.  They have created some games at Game Jams previously, and have since had one release preceding Jazzpunk: Beetlenaut (which I have not played).

Anyway, they certainly got some help making Jazzpunk, as is made clear in the credits, but this is an indie game that I felt 100% obligated to rave about after playing it because it left me with that rare feeling; the one that makes me want to shout its name from mountain tops in the hopes that other gamers are listening and have the same exceptional experience I had playing their game.

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk wastes no time throwing you right into the experience that is… JAZZPUNK.  It starts off with this busy, exciting, loud intro with music that makes me want to reference Archer somehow in that it’s very spy-like and glamorous. You are presented with a lot of patterns, loud colors, and imagery that set you up for the attitude and setting of the game before being hurled into the intro scene: a quiet train station where you exit from a very peculiar shaped suitcase.  The mechanics of the game itself are so simple that the player requires to explicit instruction to proceed.  There is only one way to go, it just all depends on what you want to look at and how long you want to take to get there.

There's a joke around every corner in this game.

This is one of the first few jokes that got a laugh out loud from me and gave me an idea of what to expect from the rest of the game.

The next thing you know, you’re invited into an office because it turns out you’re a very important person with a very important mission.  This is presented all very tongue-in-cheek and the laughs begin from the second you walk into the secretary’s office.

Jazzpunk plays very much like other indies I’m very fond of: Gone Home, Thirty Flights of Loving, and Dear Esther; the first person, exploratory point-and-click mechanics with a “figure it out yourself” feeling.  Jazzpunk expects you to be the type of player who wants to look at everything, click on everything, and relish every detail.  If you don’t, you are simply robbing yourself of the full experience.  If this sounds like a chore for you, it may not be your type of game.  If you’re like me, you embrace games like this that give you a setting and set you free to perform actions in a world full of things just waiting for you to discover.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

Jazzpunk is like this: you could either read a comic book, or read a transcript of the comic book without the imagery, characters, expressions, and little details.  Just like the Mass Effect series or recent Fallout games, you could do exactly as you are instructed to in each level, do your mission, and miss tons of little things all around you.  The Stanley Parable makes perfect example of this game design principle: taking advantage of the idea that the player will want to deviate from the “main course” and push the boundaries of what the game can afford before doing what must be done to continue.  I really appreciate this type of design because it just feels so rewarding when you dig up piece after piece of comedy gold.

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it...?  Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it…? Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

Even though the jokes are absolutely ridiculous sometimes and really random, something about the formula just did it for me.  The humor was all paced very well in between ambient activities and small side quests.  The jokes are spread throughout player conversation with the NPCs, who sure have a lot to say, the environment design (e.g. signs, buildings, sentient boxes), and interactive objects.  Just like old RPGs, I found myself clicking on every NPC until they had nothing left to say to me… or disappeared. I just couldn’t move on with the main storyline until I had explored every nook and cranny of each level to be satisfied.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

There are a lot of computer and programming-related jokes that I could appreciate.  Some of them may go over the heads of gamers who don’t have a lot of experience with code or game development, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a detractor from the game.  On the contrary, it could be incentive for players to Google things in order to understand the joke and learn from it.  I find myself doing that sort of thing all of the time with normal TV shows if I don’t understand a reference.  That said, I think it’s brilliant, to elaborate on this again, that the designers made this game keeping in mind that their target audience is primarily smart, savvy, mature players.

Break it break it down.

Break it break it down.

One of my favorite aspects of Jazzpunk was the number of mini activities there were strewn throughout the game.  Even though the game is primarily walking and clicking on stuff, every now and then you find yourself thrown into a specially scripted mini-game that managed to hold my attention for more than 5 minutes.  Pictured is the players’ artfully drawn man-hand which pops up when necessary to participate in particular activities.  In this particular activity, the hand dons a jeweled ring as the game allows you to scratch records of dated voice recordings related to science and technology with a phat beat playing.  I found this activity to be bewilderingly enjoyable and must have “DJ’d” for about 5 minutes before resuming.  It’s moments like this that really make the game memorable.  I don’t want to spoil too much by mentioning other mini-games but I wanted to emphasize the fact that this is much more than just a “walking simulator” as some may call it.

 

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

To end on a positive note, I uploaded this photograph I took of Game Informer magazine after reading the “review” they did of Jazzpunk that was crammed into their, I don’t know, “last minute” section of the magazine?  Someone named ‘Jeff’ who is proudly well-versed in B-movies and games thought that Jazzpunk got bad and bad again.  I don’t know who Jeff is or what games and movies he watches, but I was infuriated after seeing this lousy “review” in the back of the magazine and, as you can see, tore the magazine in outrage (especially after that Octodad review, too).  I feel this is injustice to indie games.

If I spent months or years developing an indie game as brilliant as Jazzpunk with a best friend or colleague, I would be outraged at this kind of lazy journalism.  Heck, I was outraged for them I suppose.  I took almost 200 screenshots while I played Jazzpunk because I felt so compelled to document each thing that brought me a good laugh.  I highly recommend this game to the casual and experienced gamer.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to just boot up a game and enjoy explorings worlds at a relaxed pace with the desire to get some great laughs.  Have you played Jazzpunk yet?  What did you think?  And if not, check it out on Steam here. I spent $5.50 on the game during a Steam sale for about 5 hours of unforgettable gameplay, so wait until the next sale if $14.99 is too far beyond your budget.

The Last of Us: What I Loved (and Didn’t Love) about Naughty Dog’s Latest Action-Adventure Title

I was indeed very late to this party, but I finally got around to playing and finishing The Last of Us over the course of several weeks.  Had I had it my way, I would have marathon played this game over a weekend, but my life and job just kept me too busy to beat this in a handful of play sessions.  I also feel like I should mention the fact that I really had no idea of what to expect from this game going into it.  The only other title from Naughty Dog I had played was Uncharted but I gave up on that because I got tired of the “run then kill dudes” pattern of the gameplay.  I realize this is what Action-Adventure games are but I felt like it just lacked in too many departments, thus preventing me from ever trying Uncharted 2 or 3.  All I knew about The Last of Us going into it was that it had infected things in it that you have to kill given minimal supplies and that it had an actor in it who looked sue-worthy similar to Ellen Page.  

Image

That said, I don’t really mind that she looked like Ellen Page… What? Don’t look at me like that.

This “review” will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the game, I highly recommend not reading this and playing it first so you can comment or have a discussion with me about whether you agree or disagree with me on the points I’m going to touch on during my evaluation.  I want to talk about what I really loved about the game and what I thought it lacked or could have gone farther with.  

To start off on a high note I want to talk about the opening cutscene and how it absolutely floored me.  I loved starting off playing Joel’s daughter, Sarah, and padding through the house trying to figure out what in the world was going on.  I found the father-daughter relationship and even the level design of the house painfully relateable so needless to say, I cried at the end of the chaotic opening sequence in which Joel fails to succesfully escape the city with his daughter alive. 

Image

The level design and environment art were highly enjoyable throughout the game.

That said, I think that the cut scenes were extremely well acted, animated, and shot.  They were never jarringly placed either.  The cut scenes fit very well in between action sequences and I think kept the game at a solid pace all the way through.  I also thought that the level design and environment art was excellent.  I almost wish there was some way the game would have let me enjoy those aspects a bit more… like with a first person cam toggle or more L3 moments that gave you good views of where you were.  I found myself using guns to zoom in on a lot of things in order to enjoy the art and posters all around.  Sometimes though I could tell in certain areas they almost didn’t expect the gamer to look closely.  There were moments when I’d see two identical pictures in the same room as each other or even within feet of each other because the level designer expected us to just chug through a particular area.  That was a little disappointing, as in a game of this length (it took me about 20 hours), I’d expect enough variety in the art to not roll my eyes at seeing two paintings of a mime in one room of a house.  Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to make it sound that bad when here I am trying to praise the art.  I’m just a detail person and those little things can kill immersion in a dramatic game such as this.  

Image

When Ellie commented on a scene or they had an exchange, I wouldn’t have minded if the camera moved around a bit to show you some additional perspectives.

I’m also happy that I never felt rushed after I cleared a level.  There’s nothing more annoying to me than games that have characters who won’t stop saying things like “HURRY UP!” when you are trying to explore, be a completionist, or just take your time during a level to appreciate what’s there.  The Last of Us, thankfully, didn’t ever do this.  Ellie always waited patiently for you to move on and would wander around, hum, mimic a jam, or adorable attempt to whistle while you searched.  That might have been my favorite aspect of the AI behavior in this game which I’m about to discuss a little more.  The fact that they took advantage of downtime to build Ellie’s character with ambient observations or audio design was brilliant.  To add to that, there were collectible comic books that would trigger conversation with Ellie as well as certain scenes that would spark conversation.  If you take the time to read each comic book summary, they are metaphorical to Ellie’s journey and struggle, but I wish that was taken further.  Ellie always tells you she’ll read the comic books later, but I wish she did something like talk to you about each chapter after she read it in the following level or tell you how she felt about it.  That would have been a great opportunity to develop her character and solidify her, and Joel’s, motivations along the way.  

Image

She says she’ll read it but she never talks about it! Argh. Also, not finding them all was frustrating when I felt like I searched every single corner.

I said I’d talk about AI behavior, so here we go.  This is the first and probably worst “didn’t love” aspect of the game.  The AI behavior of your companions (when you had Ellie and Tess in the beginning) and the enemies was often times very frustrating and confounding.  It was like the AI was a puzzle in itself to figure out.   There was not a whole lot of instruction on the game’s end as to what the rules of engagement were with particular enemies, making strategies very hard to develop until you were near end game.  At first, this made combat VERY frustrating.  The only thing the game really taught me was that Clickers reacted to sound, thus the best way to deal with them was with stealth/shanking.  This was fun when you succeeded at it.  However, the clickers were more often than not paired with gaggles of “screamers” I think they were called?  Just regular infected dudes who would groan and run at you like a zombie would.  I had no idea how to deal with them for the longest time and I often just wound up going all out with melee or a shootout to finish them off.  Their movements seemed unpredictable, and like every other enemy, we were never given any information about how to handle them or what was most effective.  

Image

Clickers: the scariest but easiest to deal with enemy.

Listening mode was fantastic and I really enjoyed using that to play up the stealth actions through the game.  But again, the AI behavior was just so unpredictable and unknown that it was a LOT of trial and error.  Frustrating trial and error.  I put a lot of thought into why combat frustrated me so much early on in the game and figured out what my problem was with it; there is no more reward for doing well or punishment for doing poorly.  Failure was made annoying by being granted the same cutscene and audio clip of being grabbed, bitten, and that high, screechy terror sound as it happened.  The checkpoints were spaced out well, so I had no problem with trying over and over, but then I learned the enemies’ paths (which were not randomized) making it more disappointing the more I had to re-do a scene.  I would have preferred more variety in death animation clips and methods overall and even a reward for when you do exceptionally well at handling enemies in a scene (e.g. a temporary health or damage boost, bonus item drops, or proficiency with your method of choice).

Once I did start to understand how combat worked better, which for me was towards the last half of the game, doing it right was so much fun and often got my adrenaline pumping when I pulled off a scene without getting hurt too badly or wasting too many supplies.  I really enjoyed the opportunities to upgrade my weapons but there was another thing that I needed more information on when it happened for the first time.  

Image

Sweet, a weapon upgrade bench! So uh… what would the weapon holster DO exactly? Guess I have to spend 75 scrap to find out. Oh, that’s what it does.

I suppose it was just by design that you had to figure a lot out on your own.  I feel like I’d enjoy the whole endeavor much more the second time through but on the flipside, it wouldn’t be the same.  Maybe Naughty Dog just wanted you to constantly feel confused, frustrated, and unsure the whole time.  Now that I’m actually typing that out I kind of liked it in retrospect.  Those feelings were supposed to be how Joel felt through the entire journey.  I guess if that was the intention, they could have connected it by giving us sound clips from Joel or something being like, “Now let’s see what this does…” or whatever.  There was just a lot of not knowing what the hell I was doing but most of the time I didn’t care.  I just wanted to move forward and experience more of the story.  I can complain about the unintuitive controls, UI, and crafting system in retrospect, but in the moment you’re not really thinking about it as much as you’re thinking about the last cut scene you just saw and where you need to go next. 

Image

Wait, so I need another 1/4 of a blade and a half a rag? When am I picking up fractions of supplies? I have no idea… WHO CARES!

It was easy enough to craft and I was always making molotovs instead of health kits because, hell, you either die in a scene or you do it right, right?  But the whole fraction of a material thing boggled me the entire game.  I STILL don’t understand what that was about.  I never realized when I was picking up 1/4 of a blade or a half of a rag.  Finding and gathering materials was always fun, but it was often a triangle spam-fest followed by an immediate press of the select button to see what I could make. When I couldn’t forge a shiv because I only had 3/4 of the tape I needed, I’d just stare helplessly and confused before closing the menu and moving on with a shrug.

Image

I can’t wait until you all spread out so I can shoot you in the head with an arrow or shank yo ass.

I want to talk a little more about the characters (other than Joel and Ellie) and the roles they played in your journey.  Like I said at the start of this thing, the cut scenes were highly enjoyable and the virtual actors felt real enough to draw very heavy emotions from me at the right moments.  At the same time though, I can’t help but feel like some of these characters’ stories fell short or could have been played out with more meaning.  The characters would say and do one thing in a cut scene, but then be contradicted by the gameplay that would follow.  For example, when Tess painfully sacrificed herself to buy Joel and Ellie a little more time in running away from the… military guys… in the Boston Capital Building, if you don’t hurry your ass up and waste time trying to look around or search for stuff, the sacrifice was completely futile because the dudes catch up to you and fight you anyway.  I had a problem with that and felt like they should have either put more pressure on me to RUN or just play out the cutscene of Joel and Ellie escaping so I wouldn’t sit there and say, “well, gee, that was a waste of a sacrifice” right after an extremely dramatic moment. 

Image

He’s an asshole! Wait, why again? What happened exactly? Oh, that’s why. Wait, he’s an asshole?

This kind of happened with Bill too.  The game kept telling me this guy was an asshole, a dick, a jerk.  But what did he do?  Helped us at every turn when we were with him.  Then we find out he’s gay and his partner hung himself, but not before leaving behind a letter telling us how he hated Bill’s guts.  That WOULD have been a good reason for him to be an asshole were it not for the fact that he reads this letter right before sending you off on your separate ways.  We never really see him be an asshole other than saying things like “don’t touch anything” to a kid, which… who wouldn’t?!  Everyone’s dead and you gotta look after your stuff!  Joel just sort of halfheartedly apologizes about the death of Bill’s “buddy” before we never see Bill again, so I don’t know.  I loved watching these characters interact and learning more about Ellie and Joel’s personalities through the cut scenes along the way, but maybe I just wanted to see more of the characters come out through gameplay and mechanics too, not just the cut scenes.  

 

Henry and Sam are especially good examples of this.  You meet them and Henry seems very level-headed and in control of his brother and their situation, but then they do ridiculous things in the game.  

Image

Sam, what happened to being like GLUE?! WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?

Everyone except Joel seems keen on teaming up, but then they ditch you the first opportunity they get after barely helping at all in a combat situation.  Henry tells Sam to stick to him like glue, but then the second you’re left alone with Sam, the kid LITERALLY goes running up to enemy AI and you have no control over his movements whatsoever.  That was an extremely frustrating moment for me.  There was just so much dissonance between what happened in the cut scenes and then what followed that I found myself furrowing my brow trying to understand just how Henry could be so unobservant of his own brother to not see him get bitten?  Or that he wouldn’t even let him have a toy… they were brothers not father and son.  Why didn’t Sam stick up for himself?  He just wound up being a scared victim and Henry gave up on himself when his brother was lost to the infection.  It was a gasp-eliciting moment but I couldn’t help but question that series of events later on.  

Image

You collect a lot of these through the game. Each time I found one I thought, “wow, maybe I’ll meet them all or get paid scrap metal for each one later!” Nope, they’re just contest winners on tags for you to look at. Wh…why? Huh? ~_~

I feel like I’ve been ranting too much about the negatives now when my overall experience of the game was one I would call “fantastic”.  I would recommend this game to any gamer, certainly, but maybe to have lengthy discussions with them about this stuff just as equally as wanting them to have the experience.  I guess to summarize, it was a huge artistic success, told a great story, used virtual actors extremely well, and was beautifully unpredictable, but had a lot of weaknesses in terms of game design.  I think Naughty Dog will improve and blow us away with their next title.  There were so many good ideas but maybe they could have left out the extras to focus on what was important.  

 

Image

Most of the game you are focused on the most important thing: this girl, right here.

Ending this with what I loved most about the game: the last scene.  My heart…  I loved that you got to be Ellie in that last little level going towards a promising looking town before a scene that concludes everything that had been developing between Ellie and Joel on a parent-child level.  Joel does something that’s hard for an adult to do and lies to Ellie’s face because he realizes she is the most important thing he has left in his life and she knows that too.  Maybe it was a cheap, quick ending to some.  To me though the fact that Joel fought so hard and recklessly stole her back from the fireflies because, selfishly, he loved her and she was all he had left to live for, was one of the most touching moments I’ve experienced in a video game.  It made me think a lot about my own dad and that definitely brought some tears.  

I never edit these things or do second drafts, but I feel like I have gone on long enough at this point and covered a lot of bases.  I just feel like I could discuss every single piece of this game.  So what did you all think?  Please feel free to comment and let me know what you liked or didn’t like, and if you agree or disagree with me on any of these points!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Of Us and highly anticipate seeing what Naughty Dog comes up with for us next time.

9.03m: A Game About the 2011 Touhoku Tsunami

This evening, I sat down at my computer in a rather somber mood (for reasons I can’t explain) and decided it was a good time of day and the right mood to try a little game called 9.03m.  9.03m is an experimental, indie narrative game which aims to connect the player to the feelings of loss and sadness caused by the 2011 Touhoku Tsunami.  The tsunami caused a devastating blow of 15,884 deaths, 6,147 injured, and 2,636 just plain missing.  I’m not sure what aspect of the tsunami inspired the title 9.03m (perhaps it’s the distance you walk in the game?) but needless to say, I was prepared for an emotional experience going into it.

The opening shot.  A beautiful moonlit beach with particle effect light leading the way.

The opening shot. A beautiful moonlit beach with particle effect light leading the way.

I must admit I was a bit surprised at the minimal scope and quality of the game, but by no means would I say I was disappointed.  Heck, I buy new songs I like on Beatport for 2 dollars, but buying a game like this that you can experience over and over or share with others is already worth the two bucks no matter how you slice it.  I’m just saying the game had a very indie look and feel to it in terms of level layout, modeling, texture, and design.  The interaction method for the clues you pick up was very much like the method used in Gone Home in which you can rotate items to discover information from them.  In 9.03m, each clue you found was connected to the life of a missing person as their silhouette fades away into the moonlit sky.

You walk from shadow to shadow, picking up memories left behind.

You walk from shadow to shadow, picking up memories left behind.

The game structure is quite linear as you move from shadowy figure to shadowy figure and examine the object they left behind as a clue to what once was.  Each item is stamped with a butterfly symbol that you must find to cue the ‘memory’ and then the beautiful, flowing piano soundtrack kicks back in to encourage periods of reflection between each beat.

Although it didn’t quite hit the emotional notes I think it was shooting for, this heart wrenching homage to the victims of the 2011 Tsunami in Japan is a worthwhile experience for your two dollars. The game’s setting, using the peaceful moonlit ocean and quiet beaches, urges you to reflect on nature and how at times it can be indescribably peaceful or mercilessly cruel.

Kentucky Route Zero: First Impressions

I’m titling this one “First Impressions” because I am writing this after having completed the first two acts that are out with three more acts due to come out in the future. Anyway, this game left such an impression on me, I knew I had to write about it before I even finished what I owned of it.  Let me help spread the word and hopefully gain a few more fans for a brilliantly crafted game aptly titled Kentucky Route Zero.

Image

This was the first image I ever saw from the game, and it was all it took to intrigue me and make me want to experience whatever awaited me in that world.

Kentucky Route Zero, or KRZ as I will proceed to refer to it to save keystrokes, is a poetic, slow-paced, subtle, and somewhat meditative point-and-click adventure game.  It is unlike any point-and-click adventure game I have ever played in that it did some pretty experimental things I have never seen before in parts of the game I will mention further in the post.  The basic premise of the game is that you are a delivery man trying to make a delivery to an address on Kentucky Route Zero, but you need help finding it first.  The plot unravels from there and the longer you work towards this, the less the game becomes about getting from point A to point B and more about everything in between.

Image

Some of the script and dialogue choices are so ambiguous, it leaves you sitting in front of your PC, scratching your chin and furrowing your brow for minutes before continuing on.

Every moment in this game feels deeply meaningful in some way.  It’s like a really good, classic film.  As I played it, I knew that I would have to play it several more times-maybe even analyze it and discuss it with others-to truly appreciate everything the creator put into this game.  I got my degree in Programming & Design, so needless to say, I am not very practiced in interpretations of narrative, symbolism, and poetry.  A lot of bits in this game felt like they went right over my head even though I was trying my hardest to keep up with its ambiguous speech choices and plot turns.  Now, I’m not saying that any of this detracted from my enjoying the game.  I am just being honest with how I experienced it and that I rather enjoyed the game’s intelligent approach. The game treated me like a mature gamer; Like a human with a brain in their skull capable of reading and processing information and feeling as opposed to a mindless creature out to shoot zombies and loot bodies.

Image

The use of the camera was very creative and effective in multiple scenes throughout the game. The zoom in effect with the foreground blacking out and backgrounds coming into view was very enjoyable.

KRZ was created by an indie company called Cardboard Computer which consists of creators Jake ElliottTamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt.  I’m not too familiar with these men, but I have to guess one or more of them studied film (I’d be really surprised if none of them did) because what they did with the camera in this game was very effective.  It panned out at the right moments and took control of scenes when necessary.  The graphics reminded me of the PC classic Another World with its clean, vector-like shapes and high contrast.  At first everything looks very flat, but the constantly changing camera gives an added depth to the world that keeps it interesting and always changing.  Sometimes, it has a rather disorienting effect which I think was intended and if so, well executed.  The point is to feel lost sometimes.

Image

Navigating the roads at your own leisure was a nice change of pace in a linear story game.

As you would expect from a point-and-click adventure game, the story is linear, but there are opportunities to go out of your way when you’re in your delivery truck to find stops along the road and explore.  These little hidden spots have either some flavor text or minimal interaction, but they all contribute to the broader narrative of the game very well.  I don’t like to spoil in my “reviews” of the games I talk about here, but I can’t help but mention the Supernatural aspects of the game.  I guess you could think of them as science fiction elements- things that can’t happen in reality but are easily acceptable in a game setting.  A big part of the game is that strange, inexplicable things keep happening to you but your character seems to take it all in stride, as none of the other characters make a fuss about the strange phenomena.

Image

I’m not going to give away what this is or where this is, but wow.

I don’t want to go on too much more in depth about the plot, but there is a lot of reflection on who you are, where you are from, and what your goal is.  None of this is handed to you.  In fact, most of it is chosen and shaped by you.  You never see it and it’s never obvious, but you are constantly making choices in speech option scenarios without any information as to what the ‘right’ answer is.  This was clearly intended, and I don’t think there really is any right answer.  The game pushes you to define yourself and what you want your journey to be within the boundaries of the story that you act within.  It’s a very interesting design that I can’t really think of any examples off-hand to compare it to.  Usually when you are given speech options in a game, it is to define personality traits like whether you are a friendly-type or more snoody.  In KRZ, sometimes the speech options will all seem like good things to say, but you are limited to one choices.  It’s hard to choose sometimes, but that’s the challenge.  That’s the core of the game: the frequent opportunities they give you to over think the dialogue and wonder, “what if I had said this?”.

Image

Scenes that appear graphically simple are beautiful in design and composition. Paired with the cryptic dialogues, I often stopped to sit and just reflect on what was before me.

If story-driven head scratchers are your thing, you’ll have to do yourself a favor and pick up the season pass for Kentucky Route Zero.  It’s such a refreshing game experience that is reminiscent of The Longest Journey, but more focused and purposeful than Sword & Sorcery Brothers EP, and, in my opinion, easier to grasp than Dear Esther.  This is certainly a game for gamers who want something beautifully poetic, mentally stimulating, and intellectually satisfying.  A few things in my first playthrough may have gone over my head, but I would gladly go through this experience a second or third time just to put all of the pieces together and better appreciate this work of art. And yes, I’m not afraid to call this that: a work of art… and I haven’t even talked about the sound yet!  Yikes, what have I been doing.

Image

Sometimes your speech options extend beyond the main character you begin as and include a companion you pick up along the way. Neat!

Well, that last paragraph was intended to lead into a conclusion but I just have to mention the sound design before I wrap up this post.  The sound design is… outstanding.  It is exactly what it needs to be for this game: a mix of the quiet, ambient, loud, white noise, and soft synth tones for more peaceful scenes.  It reminds me a bit of the sound design for Limbo in the sense that it pairs so effortlessly well with the game that you can’t help but become immersed in the experience.  The characters aren’t given voices, and frankly I’m glad they weren’t.  The sound does all the work establishing scenes, enhancing them, and putting you into that meditative state I mentioned that few games really achieve like this one does.

I look forward to seeing Parts 3, 4, and 5 from Cardboard Computer and can’t wait to see how this journey ends.  This was one of those games that I would think about when I wasn’t playing it, and still think about days after having finished.  It truly leaves an impression on you.  Whether you are a hardcore gamer looking for something fresh or a casual gamer looking for something to play in the little time you have to allot to video games, definitely put this one high on your priority list.  This is one of the best storytelling indie games of the year and I’d hate to see you miss out.

Boston Global Game Jam 2014 and Courtship

This past weekend I experienced my first Game Jam in Boston hosted by Northeastern University.  A Game Jam is typically a weekend-long event in which game developers get together, form teams, and make a video game in 24, 48, or 72 hours.  Sometimes there’s judging at the end and winners by categories but this one was just for fun so that everyone could have a good time and, most importantly, not be afraid to fail.

This was the theme we were given this year.  Deeeeep!

This was the theme we were given this year. Deeeeep!

Some friends from my previous job invited me to participate in this Game Jam with them, so we teamed up with some audio & sound engineers from Berkley as well as a Unity developer.

Our team formed and ready to create!

Our team formed and ready to create!

Before we started “jamming”, there were a few keynotes giving us all good advice on how to be unique, stay positive, and challenge ourselves.  And that every meal was going to be pizza.  The first night, we worked from about 7 to 12 brainstorming ideas, talking them out, figuring out what our roles would be, and widdling down a solid idea to start building on the morn.

Brainstorming notes and sketching in the first hour or so.

Brainstorming notes and sketching in the first hour or so.

We wanted to do something a little more experimental.   That is to say, a game without enemies, power-ups, and a lot of platform jumping.  We decided on a concept that would allow the player to judge others based on information and observation.  Our idea was never 100% solidified from the start, but we started to work as soon as we could and let the ideas flow and mold the project organically as we progressed.

Having never been to a jam before, it was exciting yet terrifying to think that we were going to create an entire experience using Unity3D (the engine we were proficient enough with and capable of using) in 48 hours!  But we believed in ourselves and each other… plus there was a lot of Starbucks coffee.

We got up every hour or so to stretch, do yoga, and make sure we were all well-fed and hydrated.

We got up every hour or so to stretch, do yoga, and make sure we were all well-fed and hydrated.

Our development process worked very effectively I thought.  This was our little productivity corner all Saturday and Sunday.  I sat next to our developer, Luke, and worked with him to build the levels, work with Unity3D, and get the animations and models imported properly.  Salil and David did amazing work coming up with themes for every level, foley, and sound effects for anything we needed.  We had so much sound, we didn’t even have time to put it all into the final version of the game we wound up submitting!  Adam, Brandon, and Michael put a lot of thought into the user experience and game design of the project.

The music and art corner, Saturday night.

The music and art corner, Saturday night.

 

More specifically, Adam acted as producer and checked up on all of us to see that we were reaching consistent milestones.  Michael developed the user interface for the in-game app mechanic and did some hilarious profile picture art that the players will (in a later version) be able to choose for their “dating profile” in the game. Brandon wrote the dialogue bits for the game and helped with recording as well as development of our final presentation video.

Sleep deprivation is your worst enemy at a jam, but it's good to try to get SOME shut eye.  I got about 30 minutes.

Sleep deprivation is your worst enemy at a jam, but it’s good to try to get SOME shut eye. I got about 30 minutes.

I forced myself to get up from this mildly comfortable sofa at around 5:15 when I decided I wouldn’t get any real sleep due to some relentlessly obnoxious jammers.  But that’s the name of the game and I had a lot of work to do before our deadline on Sunday at 3pm arrived.  I worked on making four levels in Unity3D and only managed to create and animate 7 NPCs even though we had around 30 or so planned.

Our developer Luke was a trooper, coding late into the night.  When I got up, he took a brief respite.

Our developer Luke was a trooper, coding late into the night. When I got up, he took a brief respite.

Four of us stayed in our little productivity corner through the night and headed into crunch time on Sunday morning to finish up as much as we could in order to create a video.  We thought it was pretty rough that we were required to create and submit a video by 2pm because at this point we were trying to get our levels tied together and the content imported.  It was like we had all of the puzzle pieces made, but very few put together to get footage for a proper trailer.  Yet, Brandon worked his magic and created a trailer for our game that made me sob with laughter.

It seemed like it all came together in the last hour or so but fortunately for us, the servers we were supposed to upload our game to were so busy, that the deadline was extended an extra 24 hours.  That was great news for Luke because he was able to finish up his last minute scripting and get all of the NPCs working the way they should.

Overall, it was a great experience and we all had so much fun working with each other to make a funny, fresh, somewhat politically incorrect game.  We liked it so much, in fact, that we plan to meet up again soon to work on it some more and get it to a point that we are truly proud of.  Right now, it’s in what I would call an “alpha” stage.

In Summary:  On your commute home, you decide to boot up your new app, The Courtship. While you wait for the app to send you your matches, you observe your surroundings with fresh eyes. Aren’t people’s behaviors strange?

You can play our game here: CourtShip Game

Courtship Screenshot: The opening scene at the first station of four.

Courtship Screenshot: The opening scene at the first station of four.

I look forward to my next Game Jam and to working with such amazing developers again soon at the QUILTBAG Jam!

Team Casual Unicorn: David, Luke, Brandon, Adam, Salil, Michael, and Elizabeth

Team Casual Unicorn: David, Luke, Brandon, Adam, Salil, Michael, and Elizabeth

Gran Turismo 6 – First Impressions

I picked up a used copy of Gran Turismo 6 last Wednesday because I wanted to try it before committing to buying it.  This sounded like a radical idea to me because I was one of the few gamers I knew who anxiously awaited Gran Turismo 5’s debut.  Not to mention, I didn’t even know Gran Turismo 6 was released until after the fact.  What happened there, I’m still not sure.  I had gotten bored with Gran Turismo 5 years ago because I reached a point where I lost the only race car I needed to proceed in the high level races (I had lent it to a friend to borrow it for similar races and he couldn’t trade it back or something).  No hard feelings, but I just didn’t want to commit the time to farm money and buy high end race cars for… more car prizes.  It just doesn’t really have an “end game” if you will, other than the online special events which were pretty cool.  I tried racing online for a little bit but all of the races were so car specific or just free-drifting.  I didn’t really have friends who played, so I put the game away like tucking an old collection of baseball cards under the bed to be forgotten.

Between that time and today, when I played Gran Turismo 6 for the first time, I had the opportunity to play Forza 4, but I’ll bring that up later.  First I want to talk about my first impressions with Gran Turismo 6 and why I felt a bit underwhelmed and disappointed.  I was hoping they would have observed their competitors’ products, the Forza franchise from Turn10, and change a thing or two to send the series into a fresh new direction.  Well, I guess those were misplaced hopes, because after watching the long, strange intro that involved teachers, children, and the company creating non-functioning replica of the new corvette–a much less compelling opening than that of Gran Turismo 5 which was a beautiful short film about how cars are made–I was dumped right into an “introduction” race.  No option, no narration or anything… just, welcome.  You’re in a Renault.  Okay, drive it now and we’ll interrupt you every now and then with pointers on how to play the game and drive a car.  They could have at least ASKED if I was a Gran Turismo veteran or tried to identify an old save file on my system or something.

Anyway, the introduction is the least of my gripes.  After finishing it and being told that I had a “promising future as a driver”, I was given 30,000 credits but forced to buy a Honda Fit instead of being given a choice of cars in my price range, much less allowed to even browse the dealerships whatsoever.  I also noticed the menu had no real re-design whatsoever.  It was divided the same way but was much less attractive, in my opinion, than the Gran Turismo 5 menu.

Image

Gran Turismo 5 menu: customizable, pretty, and icons sized by their importance.

Image

Welp, there are the race categories I’m painfully familiar with. Oh look and there’s the stuff pertaining to my car. And a few other icons. I’m so excited to dive into the same thing.

After buying the Honda Fit they wanted me to and destroying the amateur race AI, I received my credits unceremoniously and was thrown back to the menu after a few more pop-ups telling me how great I would surely be.  I did a few more amateur races to complete the “cups”, which will have 2, 3, or n number of races in them that you need to win before winning the cup.  I noticed however that in this new Gran Turismo, there was no celebratory pop up that you won a cup at all.  In fact, nothing happened.  When you win a race, some confetti will shoot out from both sides of the screen as it shows your name above the other drivers before it dispenses your earned credits, but that’s it.  Maybe that’s just how it is for the novice races, I don’t know.  But as someone who has played several previous GT installments in the past, this just felt painfully dull to me.  There was no narration, no flavor cut-scenes or anything.  It was just straight-up, “Okay you’re done with that.  Moving on…”

Image

Which race will I do first? I guess it doesn’t really matter. Man, I want a new car.

After having beaten the first two cups in the novice category, I bought myself a new car; a 1990 Mazda GT of some sort (I forgot the exact model).  I was excited to drive it and also found out I could buy new “gear” for my racer to make him look different.  In GT5 the outfits could be earned when you logged in multiple days in a row as a reward.  I guess now it was just another thing to spend money on.  Neat.  I did a few races and put the AI into the ground with my apparently much faster vintage ’90s Mazda with a sports exhaust slapped on it.  My girlfriend had asked me before I started playing if I was just going to return it and buy the game new for keeps, but at this point I just knew what I was going to be getting myself into: the same thing, but a less good version.

Image

I don’t know if it’s just the limitations of the PS3 hardware, but it didn’t even look much better than GT5. The interior was extremely dark and I had to adjust brightness in the game and on my television to feel like the lighting was bearable.

After about 45 minutes or an hour with the game, I said to my girlfriend, “you know, I’m just going to take this back after all.”

“Why’s that,” she asked.

“It’s just… boring.  And the same”.

After having played Forza 4 on the Xbox 360 several months ago, before she sold the 360 (cries), my standards had been raised.  I realized racing games could be more.  Forza wasn’t labeled a “driving simulator” like Gran Turismo is, but it had stunning graphics, convincing physics that made the cars fun to drive, and a narrative system that led you from race to race.  It was really nice having that.  In Forza, you would “go on tour” as a racer and have a charming British narrator tell you the next location you were heading to, some information about it, and what kind of race it would be.  Sure, it didn’t have the sheer number of cars that Gran Turismo boasts, but you could sit in the driver’s seat of every single one.

Image

There were a number of courses in the US, Europe, and Japan that you would eventually unlock and be introduced to as you progressed.

I suppose you could say that Forza 4 changed my mind about what I want in a racing game.  Being a beautiful, perfect simulator in terms of graphics, physics, and the number of cars is a good goal, but why couldn’t Polyphony work harder to include more elements or re-work the gaming system to be more fun?  When I played Forza, I didn’t care that it didn’t have every single car, but I loved what it did have.  It even had great collision effects and at the end of each race, the money you made wasn’t a flat 1st, 2nd, and 3rd monetary amounts like in Gran Turismo.  Instead, they would factor in how skillfully you drove, how much damage your car took if you decided to ram people, and the difficulty level you had the game set on.

Image

It made you feel good about yourself when you got bonuses for being a badass and didn’t even scratch the paint!

This is where my review really ends.  I don’t plan on playing Gran Turismo 6 anymore, but I do plan on buying an Xbox One sometime in the far future just to play Forza 5 to see what they have done with it.  I enjoyed Forza 4 so much that I can imagine Forza 5 is an outstanding sequel on the next-gen.  If any of you have been debating whether or not to invest in GT6 or if you want to grab an XB1 for Forza, I hope you take my advice to heart.  If you want a pretty car-collector that you will have to motivate yourself to play, get Gran Turismo.  However, if you want a racing game that is still realistic, but strikes what I found to be the perfect balance between simulation and a fun game to play, get Forza.