Category Archives: General Gaming

Maelstrom – Unscheduled, Inclusive and now with Sponsorship

There is a new gaming convention coming out soon called Maelstrom, April 4th to April 6th. I want to mention it here because as taken from the website this is something that people here would be really interested in as it’s got a focus on being unstructured and inclusive. They got a lot of attention last year with their Diana Jones Nominated play-testing convention Metatopia for being a great spot to talk about design, as well as being inclusive to their guests with lots of discussion based around queerness, mental health, and social change in games.

That said, maybe Morristown NJ is a little too far for you, and the money isn’t there? Thankfully for this new convention, the people to the IGDN are providing a sponsorship to a designer from marginalized communities whose work supports the discussion and exploration of issues that affect marginalized communities. The best thing, for those who are still worried about it, is that having published material isn’t a pre-requisite to get the sponsorship.

There are more details on the IGDN website.

 

 

Gone Home review

Samantha Greenbriar's room in Gone Home.

Samantha Greenbriar’s room in Gone Home.

Gone Home invites you to step into an empty house and uncover its stories. It isn’t a game that focuses on battle systems or outlandish weapons. Gone Home asks to player wander around, remain curious, and discover what they can about the lives of Greenbriar family.

 

Gameplay:

You enter the world of Gone Home as Kaitlin Greenbriar. After traveling abroad, she arrives to find that there is no one at the house to greet her. Your first task is to find the spare key and enter the dark home. Once inside you can turn on the lights and wander around, exploring every nook and cranny.

You discover intimate details about your family members by interacting with the environment and rummaging through the items in the house. One item will give you a hint where to look next. Interacting with an important item will open up a journal entry written by your sister. These journal entries are both voice acted and presented as text and can be accessed at any point after finding them. The main mechanic of the game is simple: explore by clicking on various items in the house.

 

Atmosphere:

There is a haunting tone to the game. When you enter the home it is dark, secluded, and silent aside from a thunderstorm raging outside. The game intersperses a quiet score with Riot Grrl songs (played via cassette tapes found within the house).

The place is littered with personal items from the Greenbriar family. Tapes of X-Files episodes, boxes full of copies of your father’s books, Nintendo cartridges, and other items serve to tell the story of the members in the house. The details are more than window dressing; they tell the story.

 

Characters:

While the player is controlling Kaitlin Greenbriar, she is not the focus. Gone Home is primarily the tale of the younger sister, a teenager whose tale you slowly learn through diary entries, letters, and scattered items. You are shown Samantha’s desires, flaws, insecurities, fears, struggles, and triumphs. The intricately designed details make her story feel real. Glow in the dark star stickers above the bed, a couch cushion fort in the living room, and boxes of short stories written in elementary school all inform the player about Samantha.

While Samantha’s life is the focus, the rest of the family is not ignored. You witness details of the parents’ marriage. You get a glimpse of a trauma haunting Kaitlin’s father (a man obsessed with writing stories where the main character changes the past). The details of these tales are fuzzier than that of Samantha’s. The player is left uncertain and making assumptions. But for players who explore the house in detail, those characters have a lot to say despite never being present within the home. The items that are hidden away in drawers act as evidence of the lives of their owners, painting  incomplete but striking pictures of Kaitlin’s parents and her great-uncle.

 

Emotional impact:

At the end of the day, Gone Home is a relatively short game. It can be completed in roughly 4 hours. But this focused experience is a gem. Months after completing this game I still think about the characters and the story. While the player never meets or interacts with Kaitlin’s family members in the house, the details of their lives are abundant. Their tales had me crying more than once.

Gone Home harnesses the power of a well written story. Developer The Fullbright Company created a game that I will not forget for quite some time.

Love is Just a Game: A Review of Your Friends Close

A red-haired woman in a red dress is seated upright in bed, cradling the head of her boyfriend in her lap.

Becca (Jocelyn Kelvin) and Jason (Brock Wilbur) in a rare moment of calm.

Your Friends Close might be termed a “video game movie,” a dubious taxonomizing term if ever there was one. “Video game movie” is not a genre, it’s a crude descriptor that sloppily groups films together based on the simple presence of video game content; it describes films as diverse as Doom (2005), a truly abysmal and unnecessary adaptation of a mindless first-person shooter, and Ben X (2007), a sensitive portrait of a boy with autism who immerses himself in an MMORPG universe.

To call Your Friends Close a “video game movie” would be a disservice. It is one of the first video game movies I have seen that rewards prior knowledge of the gaming world without requiring it, that strikes the fine line between using games as a plot element without losing itself in their details. This is not a video game movie; this is a tale of ambition, greed, and codependency set against a backdrop of video game development culture.

The film tells the story of a programming couple named Jason and Becca (played by writer-director team Brock Wilbur and Jocelyn Kelvin) who invite their colleagues (“friends” would be too strong of a word) to a house party celebrating the success of their new game. The game—also called “Your Friends Close”—is a massively multiplayer online Turing test in which players compete to guess whether or not their fellow players are human. Two rules: one wrong guess and you’re out of the game, last player standing takes all. Continue reading

Please Stop: The Trans Joke at the Spike Video Game Awards

A stylized logo that says VGX.

[TW: Discussion of transphobic joke, real-life experiences of transphobia.]

Like many graduate students, I was still finishing up last week’s work at 6 PM on a Saturday. I put on Spike TV’s annual Video Game Awards (re-branded this year as VGX) to have some background noise while I put the finishing touches on a paper.

I expected the usual: some Michael Bay-esque graphics packages, some puerile pandering to their core demographic of adolescent boys, some Mountain Dew, some Doritos, some trailers. I can stomach that, even laugh at it. Less than five minutes into the program, however, co-host Joel McHale jokingly put the rumors to rest that Wario had “undergone sex reassignment surgery.”

If you’re reading this, you might know that a joke like that is politically ill-advised. It violates the comedic wisdom that one should punch up rather than punch down. It not only repeats the exoticizing focus on transgender people’s genitals, it also casts transgender identity itself as something scandalous and laughable.

What you might not know is what it feels like to hear a joke like this, what it’s like to be triggered. To that end, let me tell you a story about a period of my life that I don’t often discuss. Seven years ago (prior to my transition), I was still in a place where I could only present female occasionally. I hadn’t yet had the earth-shattering realization that I needed to transition but I still needed space to explore crucial aspects of my identity. I was fortunate enough to be dating someone who supported me in that endeavor.

We were in New York one night while I was presenting female. The night was warm, the sky was clear; we decided to be tacky tourists and go to the top of the Empire State Building. In line, some boys approached us and tried to talk to us. At the time—without the benefits and, indeed, the privileges of experience and hormones that I have now—my appearance did not hold up under close scrutiny and they “read” me, they recognized that I was not cisgender.

They laughed and laughed and laughed. They howled. They followed us all the way through the line and into the elevator where the laughter continued in our faces. My very existence was hilarious to them. The fact that there was a human underneath the sloppy eye makeup and the tattered dress either did not occur to them or, worse, it didn’t matter to them. I realized for the first time that night that, were I to transition, I would be a living, walking joke. It’s experiences like this that keep people from transitioning for years.

I am lucky to have had just one experience this emotionally brutal and I’m immensely privileged to have been safeguarded from the acts of physical violence that predominantly effect transgender women of color. Over the course of my transition, the smirks of passersby have faded, misgenderings have all but stopped, and that howling laughter has faded into that long-ago New York night.

When I hear a trans joke in a venue as public as a nationally broadcast television show, I’m instantly back in that elevator. I’m no longer the confident woman that I’ve become over the last couple of years; I’m a scared little girl cowering in the corner, reeling from the ridicule, wondering if they’ll follow me all the way home.

Spike, do you realize what you do to people outside your target demographic when they try to engage with your work? If you realized, would you still do it? Do I want to know the answer to that question?

I could write you an angry polemic about video game culture right now. I could undertake educational efforts to help video game commentators understand transgender identity. I’ve done that. I keep doing it and nothing happens. Nothing changes. There’s always another gaffe, another joke, another game.

So tonight, Geoff Keighley, producers, journalists, if this note manages to make it to your desk, all I’m asking is that you stop. Please stop. Please stop.

Update: Immediately after this article went live, Joel McHale introduced a reader comment by saying, “He, she or he-she says…”

Bridging the Casual Divide: The P.A.W.S Kickstarter

Anthropomorphic tigers fleeing from saucer shaped UFOs with the Pyramids of Giza in the background.

Since the heyday of Game Boy, handheld games have experienced an explosion in popularity far beyond the realm of proprietary handhelds made by big console manufacturers; to the consternation of some and the joy of many more, gaming’s vista has expanded dramatically into the screens of phones and tablets throughout the world. Their lightweight, low-cost nature has also made them fertile ground for independent developers, even solo designers, but the genre still fights for respect and recognition in the wide world of gaming.

Enter PAWS, the Prime Alien Watch Squad, the brainchild of Andreas Katelanos, Christina Antoinette Neofotistou, and Nathan Mitton with its bold combination of cuteness and strategy.

PAWS is a turn-based strategy game set on a hex battlefield that follows the quest of your anthropomorphic team to recover world landmarks stolen by mysterious aliens. Front and centre are your team of four—Spiffy the Tigress, your combat specialist and squad leader; Bobi Sue the Squirrel, a maven of ranged attacks; Dusty the bear, your healer; and Tycho the Tortoise, your tech turtle. In an interview with the Border House Neofotistou, who is the game’s artist and animator, said that it was important to her to have characters who transcended the crude stereotypes that often make their way into even independent and casual games. “there was no way I was going to have one objectified token female character in there as an afterthought,” she said. “I want to see female characters in games, I want games to pass both Bechdel Tests, and I hate the more insidious kinds of sexism like damsel in distress in Mario or Bioshock (why make a super-powered character that is incapable of handling herself?) or the ableism and sexism in Fat Princess.” This is her clear and unambiguous answer to the tired old “make your own game!” charge.

Continue reading

Older games and backlogs

A very large collection/stack of video games.

A very large collection/stack of video games.

While it is true that there are new systems and games that recently released here in the US, there is also a glut of games for existing systems.

With the newer systems coming out, older consoles are going on sale as well as many older games. That means it is a good time to find some gems from the past at potentially low prices.

Let’s share some of our favorite games from the last few years!

Here is my list:

  • PS3 – Valkyria Chronicles, The Atelier series (Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori, Atelier Meruru), Tokyo Jungle, Journey, Yakuza 3, Final Fantasy XIII, Ni No Kuni, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Ratchet and Clank Future: A Crack in Time
  • Xbox360 – Lost Odyssey, Infinite Undiscovery, Last Remnant
  • Xbox360/PS3/cross-platform – Dragon Age series, Fallout 3, Mass Effect series, BioShock
  • Nintendo DS – NinjaTown, Etrian Odyssey series, OkamiDen, Ace Attorney and Phoenix Wright series
  • Nintendo Wii – Little King’s Story, Elebits, Monster Hunter Tri, Xenoblade Chronicles, Super Mario Galaxy, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Kirby’s Epic Yarn

A lot of games are also available on PC and can be found through various sales online.

So, let’s take a moment and share some of our favorite games from the past decade. Maybe someone will find a new game that they want to track down, or get motivated to finish or replay games from their backlog based on our lists.

What were some of your favorite games?

 

Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

Welcome to the Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
A photo of a bunk bed.

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, PC and Mac, $19.95 USD) is a sci-fi social media simulator that transports the player to a Star Trek-inspired future while lampooning the Facebook of the present. By navigating social media website Spacebook (get it?), the player builds relationships, acquires skills, and climbs the career ladder. Redshirt will be available on November 13th, 2013 on Steam, GoG, and through direct download.

Top Bunk: Samantha

It’s my dream to be queer in outer space. Why? Queerness and outer space are the two coolest things ever, so they should be mind-blowing in combination, right? My partner and I would live on a homey little space station orbiting Jupiter, far away from all the straight people. We’d be so beautifully isolated and, in the stillness of space, I would perfect the art of the Barbarella-esque, zero-gravity striptease.

When I booted up Mitu Khandaker’s Redshirt, I was ready to live out my dreams of sultry space sex. I made a green-skinned Asrion character named Samantha, indicated an erotic interest in women on my profile and began my simulated space sojourn. But alas, the endlessness of space couldn’t shield me from the vagaries of love. Redshirt was not the queer getaway of my dreams but it did produce an unforgettable tale of love and heartbreak. Continue reading

The Part of Threes: Vander Caballero

Game designer and co-founder of Minority Media, Inc., Vander Caballero.

Last week, our guest for On The Border, game designer and co-founder of Minority Media Vander Caballero, shared many interesting insights on his emotion- and experience-centric approach to game design. This week, Vander gives us his answers to our standard Part of Threes questions.

Three favorite games

1. Ico, and

2. Shadow of the Colossus.

3. I also play Lego City with my son.

 
Three favorite non-games-related hobbies or activities

1. Play with my son.

2. Building legos with him.

3. And food. (TBH: Cooking or sampling?) Sampling!

 

Three people in games you admire

1. Team Ico,

2. Hideo Kojima, and

3. David Cage.

 

Three pieces of advice for young developers

1. Even if you can make a game of your own, that’s great; but you have to have a mentor to help you grow.

2. When you’re experimenting with your own money, it’s really expensive. So you should experiment with other peoples’ money. So that means, work for a company and make experiments on other games, and then what works, apply to your games. It’s pretty- you could do it when you’re in school, and you can experiment with mechanics and R&D because that’s what you’re in University for. When you come out of it, that’s when it’s going to come out of your budget, and that’s really really difficult to sustain.

3. Try not to specialize. Some people are really good at specializing. But if you’re creative, you have to learn about everything. If you want to direct an orchestra, you have to know every instrument. So, try to touch as much as you can, because if you want to develop games one day, you have to learn how to play every instrument.

The Border House would like to thank Vander Caballero for interviewing with us, and for the staff at Minority Media, Inc. for working with us through the interview process!

Survey About Romance in Games

Do you play dating sims or games with NPC romances? Then take this survey!

Researcher and game developer Heidi McDonald contacted the Border House to let us know about her survey, which is her second about romance games. She writes, “I am issuing a very special invitation to members of the LGBTQ community to take part, because I believe that hearing their voices about the current state of romance in games, and how we as developers might make game romance more inclusive and more satisfying for ALL customers, is incredibly important.”

She hopes to reach 2,000 respondents for this survey. Please take a moment to take the short survey, and help make game romances more inclusive.

The NPC Romance Project — deathbow.com

On The Border: An interview with Vander Caballero

On The Border’s guest this week is Vander Caballero, designer of the award-winning game Papo & Yo, and co-founder and Creative Director at Minority Media, Inc. Beginning as a designer at EA Montreal, Vander worked on games such as Army of Two and the FIFA franchise before realizing his dream of becoming an independent developer and creating a game that embodied an important personal experience of his past.

Co-founder and Creative Director of Minority Media, Inc., and lead designer of Papo & Yo, Vander Caballero.

Co-founder and Creative Director of Minority Media, Inc., and lead designer of Papo & Yo, Vander Caballero.

The Border House: What was your time like working at EA on games like FIFA and Army of Two?

Vander Caballero: I learned a lot about making games with them. I really thank them for giving me the space to do that. But the problem is that the game industry is so new that the processes for creative authorship in video games has not yet been really set out. What happens is that it becomes a kind of consensus approach. It takes a lot of authorship and authenticity out of projects. And that is something that is sad about big productions.

Being small and indie, you can have a structure that is not that; what is important is the life of this story that the person wants to tell. For example, when we were working on Army of Two, we had to define a sequence with an animator for how a guy gets shot. We have multiple debates on how he would react, what the life system is going to be, and stuff like that. The discussion happened like, “I think it’s this, I think it’s that,” and you can have multiple debates on what’s right or not. Sometimes decisions are made more based on who has the most power. That happens a lot, and that’s sometimes not the best way.

The main characters of Papo & Yo, Quico and Monster.

The main characters of Papo & Yo, Quico and Monster.

But when it’s personal and about your personal life, no one can discuss it because, that’s what I lived. There’s a sequence [in Papo & Yo] where at the end of the game you have to let Papo go and you push him down into the cliff. And I remember seeing how the animator was animating Papo when you’re pushing him in his bed when he’s sleeping, and it didn’t feel right. When my father died, I was carrying his coffin with my brothers. When you carry a coffin, what is really weird is that when the person is dead, his feet still move. The person is dead inside of the coffin, and his feet hit the side of the coffin and it goes “clack, clack, clack”. And you’re walking, you hear the “clack, clack” and it’s just so hard, it’s kind of a stab in your heart every time. I told that story to the animator, and he said, “I get it. I’m going to do it.” And he did a really beautiful animation when you actually feel that you’re carrying this person who is going to die, and it’s beautiful. You put all of your heart into it, and it’s not about saying, “Oh I think the guy can react like this.” There’s a big difference.

TBH: When did you know that you wanted to transition from working at a big company like EA to starting your own independent games studio, Minority?

VC: When I saw Braid, and I saw that I can download and make crazy games and challenge the notion of what games are, in a small package. I said, “That’s what I’m going to do. I have to get out.” I’ve always wanted to be independent, I’ve always wanted to tell my story and create my own game like many people. In the past in order to make a game you needed $50 million. And now you don’t need that. You can do a game for $5,000. It’s crazy. Today, to make a game and make it available for consumption, you just need to put it on the iOS.

TBH: How would you describe the vision and direction of Minority?

VC: I think that Minority’s vision is to create game experiences that challenge people emotionally, at the same time give them closure, to help them lead better lives.

TBH: Papo & Yo, the flagship title of Minority, was heavily based upon your own childhood experiences. Can you speak to the process that was synthesizing these difficult memories from your past into an interactive, emotionally-arresting piece?

VC: I think that video games are the most powerful tool we have in the world today. Before, seeing a movie was a passive experience: you sit down, and you see what is happening to other people, and you project yourself onto what is happening to other people. But with video games, you’re not projecting. You’re there. You’re that person, and you’re living it. For example, the main mechanic [in Papo]: Monster is being your friend and being playful, and the second he eats a frog, he goes crazy and starts attacking you. And then you need to find a cure. So in the game you’re Quico, this kid, and you’re playing with Monster, and suddenly you see a frog. You freak out! And you want to run and catch that frog and splat it against the wall, or you just hide. And that was exactly how I felt as a kid. Seeing other people play and see how much they get touched by the experience, it is so beautiful and so powerful, because what happens is that you get to live this really difficult experience in a safe environment. And that’s what books do, and what movies do. But video games do it at a deeper level. And I think that it’s really beautiful when you can actually make it happen.

Most people are unhappy when they finish a game. They’re never happy with the ending. Because so far, it’s not been about teaching you how to cope. It’s just helping you to escape. They don’t give you a moral, they don’t give you a transformative experience like movies or books do. Right now, I think that games have to do that and we have to do it more often: give you a transformative experience. You start a game, and you end up as a different person. But sometimes you play a game and you play it for hours and you end up being the same person at the end, so it’s kind of a shocker, expending 30 hours of my life playing this game and getting nothing.

TBH: What are your and Minority’s plans for the future with regard to game development?

VC: We’re doing games that are about transformative, emotional journeys. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s what I want to keep doing. And at the same time, we’re doing some experiments here and there; one of them might become a game one day.

TBH: How would you say your design aesthetic, how you make games, meshes with the industry’s aesthetic as a whole?

Quico in the visually-arresting, favela-inspired world of Papo & Yo.

Quico in the visually-arresting, favela-inspired world of Papo & Yo.

VC: Gabriel García Márquez is the Latin-American writer who brought fantastic realism as a unique touch. He used techniques to create a world based on reality, then injected magic in to this reality to help people cope with difficult situations.. I liked that, because many video games are about sci-fi or science fiction and these fantastic worlds, but I think that what I don’t like about them is that they have no links to reality. And that’s what I like, and that’s what I bring to video games. I bring the fantasy and reality together.

TBH: Is there anything you’re looking forward to making in the future? A dream project, perhaps?

VC: I want to do an Oculus Rift emotional experience. I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve worked with virtual reality, so I know the tech, and it’s incredible to see how accessible it is to people now. Around 17 or 18 years ago, these devices were really expensive and it was really hard to make something for them. Today, you have Oculus Rift and you have this website where you can download everyone’s demos. Virtual reality accessible for everyone. And once these devices improve and go into the mainstream, it will be a trip to make a game for those.