Looking for a Good Time?

Maya at Very Very Gaming made a post about Braid recently.  But let’s forget about Braid for a second.  I certainly do.  In it, Maya points out the mentality some take that for a game to take the form of High Art and deliver all the EMOTIONS! and ATMOSPHERE! and FEELINGS! that so many developers, players, and supersexy games bloggers are looking for, they shouldn’t be fun.  The games as art discussion has been around the interbutts for a good long while, and this is not a new idea.  I’ve seen it said plenty of times by plenty of people who don’t know what they’re talking about, that a game’s nature as a game precludes it from delivering all the things art is supposed to.

There are good arguments against the ‘games as art’ idea.  This one isn’t one of them.  The thought that something should be an ‘interactive experience’ rather than a ‘video game’ to deliver the artsy stuff is just as much complete bullhonky as all the ‘art is not interactive!’ arguments out there.  Maya hit it right on the head that ‘games can be both enjoyable AND deep and meaningful.’

That’s like two paragraphs to get me to the actual point of this post, but that phrase there got me thinking.  Nearly all video games out there are intended to be fun.  Some aren’t.  Like Braid.  And a few other games I’ll be talking about here.  So, does a video game have to be fun to be worth playing?

I know, I know, it’s tempting to get into the traditional definition of ‘game’ here, but honestly, the medium of video games has grown beyond that.  Video games as we have them know have grown to include as much a variety of styles and experiences as most any other medium.  Yeah, it’s plenty immature compared to most other types of creative works, but that doesn’t really mean anything as it pertains to the medium’s potential.


And yeah, the vast majority of games are meant to be fun.  And that’s a good thing.  Even for the lofty, complicated, and plot-based game.  Red Metal had made a very good point recently that Papers, Please and Undertale were big, deep, thoughtful experiences, but they did a lot better at delivering the lofty ideals behind them because they are fun.  And there’s good reason for that.  Being entertained by something drives engagement, and through that, makes you more open to exploring the more conceptual aspects the game’s trying to deliver, and, even just working on a subconscious level, opens the door for the more intangible aspects of a game to get ingrained in you.  People have been using games as learning experiences for at least as long as I’ve been alive, and it runs off of the same concept.  Entertainment leads us to internalize things, and that’s where a lot of these game stories really thrive.

I’ve had plenty of these ‘deep’ experiences that never gained root with me because I just never enjoyed the experience enough to really get into it.  Braid’s a great example of that.  The developer put a lot of thought into the story, but I didn’t have a good time with the gameplay, so I just didn’t bother with that.  The Path is another strong example there.  That’s one of the earliest ‘art games’ I came across.  And it’s clear the developers wanted it to be a deep, thoughtful experience.  Basically, to illustrate that game, you’re one of six versions of Little Red Riding Hood, set to go to Grandma’s house.  If you just follow the path there, you get there safely and uneventfully, and the game ends without anything happening.  If you leave the path, you actually explore the forest, come across your metaphorical wolf, have a bad time, then make it to grandma’s house with your life a little more ruined.  It’s all wrapped up in themes of childhood, and growing up, and moving through bad life experiences, and is the kind of thing that’s really interesting on paper.  In practice, though, it’s a really weak experience, and that’s largely because the gameplay aspects of it are absolutely worthless, only there as filler for the few brief moments of the game where they are delivering something, bringing you neither fun nor any real experience in the interim.  And that it the weakness that absolutely ruins The Path.  If the gameplay parts of it had some actual gameplay, you may have been able to use that to bring more experience and reinforce the themes and moments they were actually going for there.

Fun is important.  Even when a game is more about the plot than the fun factor, having that entertainment there goes a long way towards carrying the rest of it through.


And yet.  And yet.  Always an and yet. Let’s think back to the games that were all the rage before I started realizing how much I love the sound of my own voice and stopped listening to everyone else.  You remember how big everyone was going on about Spec Ops: The Line?  That game was a big emotional tour de force, that I didn’t really like, but that was more due to the content itself rather than its delivery.  Plenty of people loved it.  And its message wasn’t really harmed by its lame gameplay.  In fact, many said it was enhanced by the poor shootbanging.

You remember before the Telltale formula became the Telltale formula, before all the best writers bailed off the ship, and the Walking Dead, Season 1 came out and blew everybody’s minds?  There is not a single part of that game that is actually ‘fun’.  Yet it was still the storytelling experience of the year in games.

For that matter, think back to any horror game you particularly liked.  Not action horror, because that’s going for a completely different feel, but good old classic survival horror, or spook horror, or just plain scary scary game.  Chances are, if it left that impression on you, it was never fun.  Video games do horror very, very well, possibly better than any other medium, but horror games are very rarely fun.  And that’s deliberate.  Horror video games are geared towards delivering a very specific feeling and experience.  And fun would interfere with that.  Scary video games don’t deliver the rollercoaster type scariness where you can mix that with the fun, video games, and most other spooky artistic mediums, reach into your brain and twist the mental fear out of it.  They get your mind working against itself.  If your mind is having fun, it won’t be able to settle on the fear.  Fun would be a complete distraction, a big mood killer, in this experience.

For that matter, I brought up exactly this point when I was talking about my adventures with Zelda II.  I played the game.  I beat the game.  I was so fulfilled by that.  Yet I never, ever had fun with it.  I had some similar experiences with Dark Souls.  You all watched me repeatedly wear my well-built rear end as a hat in fighting against the likes of Manus, Artorias, Ornstein and Smough, et al.  Overall, I did have fun with Dark Souls, but that fun didn’t come from running up against the same challenges and failing over and over again.  And even so, I still felt fulfilled by overcoming the challenge, although the time I spent doing that was not traditionally ‘fun’.

So where does the line fall?  What makes the Walking Dead, Season 1 a good experience, and the Path not?


I think it’s a pretty simple dichotomy.  The games that aren’t fun, but still make it work replace the fun with something else.  The likes of the Path and, as Maya pointed out, Braid, do not.  Dark Souls fills the unfun parts of it with a lot of opportunity for that oh-so-satisfying personal skill growth.  Walking Dead used the unfun gameplay bits to keep the plot moving forward.  They get use out of the gameplay.  Games that screw up the fun and end up the worse for it don’t gain from their gameplay sections, by and large.  They end up as mostly movies making you wonder why they were even released at all.  Games that aren’t fun but are still good experiences are those that still use the interactivity to deliver something to the player in service of whatever experience they’re going for.

Does this make these games worthwhile experiences, however?  To be honest, as wise and charming and always right as I am, that is completely up to you.  You’re the one charged with making the most of your time, and if what you’re looking for is something fun, nobody can hold that against you.  Usually, when I pull out the controller, that’s what I’m looking for.  But I’ve had plenty of great times, and have grown my sphere a bit, playing through games that aren’t traditionally fun.

Can It Carry That Weight? A spoiler-lite review of The Walking Dead, Season 2


Man, Season 1 of the Walking Dead came out of nowhere. Telltale Games had been cranking out licensed adventure games for nearly a decade by that point, and had yet to produce anything that wasn’t completely missable if you weren’t already a fan of the source material. But still, they kept trucking along, spending their days being as inconsequential as possible, then all of a sudden, BAM! Game of the Year. Telltale had a certain reputation, one that didn’t exactly speak to great quality, when all of a sudden they’re leading the pack? That wasn’t the only thing odd about the situation, though. Most of those Game of the Year awards go to whichever games have the most polished shootbanging, the smoothest swordhitting, or the most detailed gutsmashing. The Walking Dead, however, while it did have you shoot some bangs, was notable mostly because of the quality of its storytelling. This was a game that, rather than wow you with detailed mechanics or shiny graphics or complex systems, simply made you sad, but so glad that it did. The Walking Dead delivered the kind of videogame storytelling those plot-first players like me have been clamoring for for years, and executed it so powerfully that it was placed on a pedestal even higher than a lot of the more high-profile polished-to-a-gleaming-shine traditional games that were released that year. The game was definitely flawed, but it delivered such an emotional experience that so many people looked right past those mars and hailed the Walking Dead as one of the best storytelling experiences in all of vidgames.

It sold a lot. So of course there was going to be a sequel. As the game is released episodically, it was a Season 2 to the first game’s Season 1. Nobody was surprised at its announcement. Nobody had expected it not to come. The only question was if it was going to be a worthy follow up to the deep, powerful experience that was The Walking Dead, Season 1. Well, the final episode of Season 2 dropped last week. I finished it all up yesterday. The answer to that question ended up being a bit more complicated than I had expected. What do you say we go through it here?

The biggest question we probably have to address first would be “Is Season 2 as good as Season 1?” No. It’s just not. Which isn’t surprising. Season 1 left some mighty big shoes to fill, and it would take a lot to reach or surpass it. “Is Season 2 good?” would probably be a better question, and one I’ll try to answer here. My feelings on it are complicated. The game’s certainly a lot worse than it had to be. It seems to take the foundation Season 1 laid out, and build on it in all the wrong directions. So we end up with a house that has all of its walls sideways and looks like a design student just vomited all over the blueprints. But you know what? It had some good parts going for it too. The house is still liveable, and has a few bits here and there that make it worth keeping around.

So, if someone were to ask me to sum up the biggest difference between Season 1 and Season 2, I’d point to the writing staff. Season 1 had three writers contributing towards various episodes, two of whom had been writing for Telltale for years, and one of whom is an accomplished screenwriter. Season 2 has five writers, but only one of them has any sort of significant writing credits earlier than 2013. All the other writers, including the lead, seem to have been broken in either with the Walking Dead Season 1’s lackluster DLC, or with their previous game, the Wolf Among Us. The Walking Dead should be Telltale’s showcase series, yet they handed the writing duties, that which the game is most known for, to a bunch of newbies, and it shows so much in the final product.

To sum things up nicely, the writing in Episodes 1-3 is sloppy, Episode 4 brings in a much more experienced storyteller and ends up being the strongest one and the only episode that reaches the quality of Season 1, and Episode 5 really feels like a first draft but has a powerful (yet likely very divisive) ending that, to me, made it all worth it.


In Season 2, you play as Clementine, the Player Character of Season 1’s surrogate daughter, grown up a couple years to a hale and hardcore 11-year old trying to stay alive in the zombie apocalypse. The zombies in all mediums of the Walking Dead are fairly generic, operating by only one or two non-typical rules, but the big thing that makes The Walking Dead what it is are how the people act. In this world, zombies are pretty much just an environmental hazard, it’s the humans that are most dangerous. The breakdown of society and the difficulty of getting resources makes humans infinitely more unpredictable and dangerous than the zombies are, and the big reason that no form of society can be reestablished is that people just can’t trust each other anymore. That’s the setting you have to deal with, that’s what you have to guide Clementine to survival through.

Just because the writers are new, doesn’t mean they don’t have guts, and they make a fair number of bold changes to the Season 1 formula. Most of them don’t really work out, though. One of them that does, though, is the switch in focus on what feelings the game invokes. Season 1 made me feel so sad. It’s a hard world, with a lot of hard choices, and each one I make leaves me worse of than before. Season 2, on the other hand, made me feel like a dirtbag. You join Clementine in a world much devolved, if possible, from the situation in Season 1 two years before, where it’s almost impossible to make do without harming others. You’re posed with choices in the game, but there’s nothing good to come out of them, and the most you can affect is who the bad comes down on or whether the bad is your fault or not. I tend to try and immerse myself in the narrative, and that made me really uncomfortable this time, but it definitely added to the experience as a whole and with some of those wicked choices, I really did deserve to feel like a dirtbag.


I don’t know whether it’s because the writers are inexperienced, or there was a deliberate decision towards this effect, but the way the player’s choices are handled in Season 2 works a lot differently than in Season 1. Choices were a big thing in the Walking Dead. One may say that they’re one of the major factors making the game’s story as powerful as it was. One of the biggest criticisms of Season 1, however, was that a lot of the choices were simply illusory, that they didn’t really have much of an impact on the story. Season 2 seems to have corrected that by removing the illusion of choice. Oh, you’ll still be making the hard choices. It’s just that only a few of them actually make a difference beyond the next scene. Season 2 invalidates your choices all over the place, often right after you make them. Do you remember that scene at the end of Episode 1 of the Walking Dead’s Season 1, where you had two characters who were both in trouble, and only enough time to save one? That was a huge wake up call. It set the tone for the rest of the season, and let you know exactly the gravity your choices would have. Moreover, it had real impact. One character would die, and the one you saved played a significant part in the next couple of episodes. Season 2 does the same thing, except it turns out a bit differently. You have Character X and Character Y both in danger, and you can only save one of them. If you save Character X, he lives and Character Y dies immediately. If you save Character Y, Character X lives and Character Y dies anyways in the first act of Episode 2. And that’s one of the lucky few that actually matters at all. There are far more that are just invalidated as soon as they’re made. For example, there’s one choice regarding whether or not to have Clementine admit to something she did. No matter what you choose, one of your group will just interrupt you before you can speak and take the blame for you. There’s one part where a member of your group is downed in a firefight, and Luke is providing covering fire while you attempt to get behind a wall. You can choose to take that member with you. If you do, both of you make it behind cover and Luke gets shot in the leg. If you don’t, Luke goes out to get that member, and gets shot in the leg. Either way, it never gets called back to again. There’s a couple of times where you can keep a character from getting killed. If you do, they’ll never talk in cutscenes afterwards, and they’ll barely have any speaking lines outside of them. Even the most seemingly meaningless choices in Season 1 had at least some play with how the other characters viewed you, but there’s none of that here in Season 2. I know it’s really, really complicated to actually create a branching narrative, but you could have at least tried, right? There doesn’t seem to be any effort towards that end here.

Another difference is that the game is a lot more linear, here. Season 1 was very well on its tracks, but it still had moments where you could stop, figure out puzzles, chat with your group members, and get more background on everything. This had huge impacts on the game. For one, having the opportunity to be challenged, to have to figure out how to get through situations, to get a chance to explore a small part of the world you found yourself in; it brought you more into the world, made it feel more real, and helped with that all-important immersion. For another, this is how you got most of your characterization out of the game. For such a character-driven experience, that’s absolutely vital. You were given a list of subjects you could go through, leading to a fairly broad conversation with most characters several times per episode. Season 2 doesn’t have much of that. It’s all just playing from one cutscene to another. Occasionally, you might be called upon to actually do something, but whatever it is will be incredibly straightforward and won’t give you much opportunity for conversation or deviation. The few times you do get to talk with people, they’ll have a single things to say, and you don’t get to go through the conversation trees that were so good last time. The game definitely loses something for that. I was never as close with most of the characters as I was last time around, nor did I ever feel like I was as much a part of this narrative.

The episodic nature is definitely not helping this game. It’s not an episodic game, even though it’s sold as if it is. Season 1 was episodic. Each episode had a well-defined arc, a story that began, built up, and resolved, all while creating an arc over the season as a whole. Season 2 on the other hand has two well-defined arcs, one lasting from ep. 1 to ep. 3, and the other building from ep. 2 to the final episode. Breaking things up into episodes just had the effect of making those arcs feel a bit more disjointed, and the blind insistence on always ending arcs on massive cliffhangers is simply sloppy and offensive.


Honestly, that’s not to say it’s a bad game. I didn’t hate my time with the first three episodes, and the package is worth it for the last two alone. I just feel that the experience as a whole is sloppy, and made a lot worse than it needs to be by some really odd design decisions. The writing and story is still a cut above that in most games, and starts approaching the quality of Season 1 in the penultimate episode, although it never really reaches the previously established heights. They do do some interesting things with the plot and characters. They did a really good job of making me hate people then turn around and actually like them after a simple, honest apology. They’ve got something going here, and Season 2 is definitely worth your time. Just be aware it’s starting to look like we’re slipping back into old Telltale, not the storytelling renaissance we expected after Season 1 came out.

Running through the Haul: Steam Summer Sale 2014

I’ve only had a computer worth its salt in the gaming world for about a year and a half. A collective gift from several members of my family, I got it when I was in the midst of a rough patch of life that I knew was going to last for some time. This was a great investment for me, one I was particularly excited to fill up with new forms of electronic delights, but I was concerned as to how well I’d be able to take advantage of its gaming prowess. Even when I have money, I’m notoriously frugal; how was I ever going to get my gaming goodness on while going through times with my budget already stretched to the breaking point?

For once, though, it seems God is on my side. How else could you explain a world where Steam exists? One platform, with thousands of games, constantly going on deep, deep discounts. If you’re patient and observant, you can pick up pretty much anything on the cheap. And luckily, I have both of those qualities. There, you see? The good lord wants me to play some video games. It’s almost as though it was written in the holy word “Yea, did Aether visit sweet ruination upon some foul sucker, and dubbed him ‘noob’.”

And nowhere else is Yehowah’s calling for me to indulge in those interactive electronic delights stronger than in the seasonal Steam Sales. A period of weeks when nearly everything is significantly marked down, with daily or flash sales pushing prices even lower? How can a man resist? I did end up buying a bit more than I intended, but still managed to go without breaking the bank. I figured, why not indulge in a celebration of capitalism by sharing details on my loot? So here we go. Brief reviews of what I bought on the Steam Summer Sale.

Let’s go!



Indie horror title by some of the guys who worked on F.E.A.R. Now, I’ve heard about F.E.A.R. and… well, I just never really cared. And I was totally prepared to never really care about this game, either! But then I saw a video about it, really loved the visual style and the setting, and found it for a really low price given how new the game is, so I decided to pick it up.

The most striking thing about the game is the artistic direction. Most everything’s in black and white, with one other color, red or blue depending on which version of the game’s reality you’re in, marking off enemies and important things. The contrast is striking. With normal colors, the game’s graphics would probably be completely average and forgettable, but with a visual design like this? The game looks a lot more attractive than it has any right to be.

The setting is interesting, not one you see in very many artistic works. The unnamed you washes up without any backstory in what seems to be barely colonial America, where the colonists have been here just long enough to drop off their luggage and piss off everyone around them, which is the American way. The land is decidedly empty, save for a fort populated only by an amnesiac woman in red and the benign ghosts of the British, and hordes of Spanish Demon Zombies.

Gameplay’s got a lot of what we’ve already seen in other games. You find items in weird places because this is a horror game and that’s how they work, and assumedly use them to solve puzzles. I don’t know, I didn’t play very far, could be they just sit in your inventory forever. Combat’s a little interesting, because you’re dealing with 17th century armaments, meaning they all suck. After the hour or so I played, I picked up a bow, which was weak but “useful” for the game’s “stealth”, which we’ll get to in a bit, a musket, which was powerful but noisy and takes an eternity to reload, tomahawks, which seem to instantly kill an enemy and are great against charging foes, but you can only hold one of, and bombs, which demonstrated my glorious and intelligent habit of using when enemies were less than a foot away from me. With relatively weak and/or limited weaponry and the number of your foes, stealth plays a really important function in this game. Shame that it’s broken. Your bow is your most stealthful weapon, yet even that is next to useless. No matter how sneaky you are, no matter how hidden, as soon as you hit anybody, every enemy in your vicinity magically knows exactly where you are, and will charge you en masse. It really serves to break what they’re going for here.

Also, it’s not very scary. Your mileage may vary, as I imagine not everyone’s spine has the strength and consistency of tempered steel as mine does, but it just did nothing for me.

Dungeons of Dredmor

dungeons of dredmor

Yes, a game that’s normally $3, and I still waited for it to go on sale. That’s just how I roll.

Not quite sure what to say about this game. I wanted a roguelike, and this fits the bill to a T, being extremely reminiscent of NetHack and all the other classical games of the type I’ve briefly meddled in. Except, you know, with graphics. It’s got a sense of humor that, while not exactly driving me to riotous laughter, I’d still like to see more of. And roguelikes only ever show their true quality after long hours of play, which I didn’t put into it here.

I intended to, really. I was actually excited for this game. It does show an incredible amount of depth, as is needed for quality in the genre. I ended up going over the first level in the course of about an hour or so, and it just wasn’t resonating with me. Part of it was the challenge, which wasn’t really there although it did pick up once I descended to the next level. And what the hell is a roguelike that’s not even hard? A stupidfluffygameforfoofoolittlebabieslike, that’s what. Part of it was the inventory system, which is really ineffective considering how much loot I picked up. And I do so love my loot. However, my loot needs respect, which wasn’t really happening here. Also, my time was a bit limited for a game of this type, so back to the library it goes, waiting for when my mind may be a bit more open to what it has to offer.

Gone Home


Ah, now this is an experience. It made me feel. Feel emotions. And as a rock hard stone cold jaded hunk of human being, that’s a real achievement.

So, as the game goes, you just came back from a year-long trip gallivanting around Europe, which is really the only type of gallivanting that can be done. Your family moved to a new home inherited by your father while you were gone, and this is your first time seeing it. However, when you enter, the place you’re presented with is ransacked and completely vacant. All you have to point you to what happened is a note from your sister asking you not to investigate.

So of course you do. A mean, what else is going to happen here. And in so doing, you learn about what your family, especially your sister, have been up to while you’re gone. It’s a tale of love, of the challenges of youth, and of how STUPID STUPID DUMB teenagers can be. It’s far from perfect, and can be heavy handed at times, but it did pull my heart strings. I found myself actually feeling for the characters. It’s a great example of how interactive media can truly pull of some indirect storytelling efficiently.

You do have to know what you’re getting into when buying this, though. There’s quite a few horror undertones, reminiscent of recent indie horror titles like Amnesia and Slender. It’s a dark and stormy night, everyone has mysteriously disappeared, and the ransacked state of the house suggests someone or something aggressive stole through. The game’s not a horror game, though. There’s no enemies, no monsters, no danger. It’s all about just exploring your home and mentally piecing together what happened to your family and learning more about them.

One thing I do have to make note of. Yes, the house is incredibly detailed, and it’s obvious a massive amount of time and care went into putting the setting together. Yes, I really appreciate having gone through this experience. Twenty dollars, it’s normal price, is still waaaaaay too much to ask for a game like this. You’ll have seen all the content in two to three hours, and the story’s clear enough that there’s very little replay value if you’re not someone completely stupid who is going through it again in an attempt to properly analyze it for an overly presumptuous blog post.

Yeah, I’ll probably have that up sometime in the mid-future.

The Walking Dead, Season 1

walking dead

Yeah, if you’ve been paying any attention to video games at all over the past couple years, you know about this one. This game is made to make you sad. And it will. If you play it at all. You will be sad and you won’t be able to stop yourself. And you’ll be thankful for every last bit of it.

Steam has given me an odd habit, one that I’m not entirely in favor of. Ever since I’ve got this computer, I have bought a great many copies of games I already own on consoles. I now have two copies of Saints Row the Third, Fallout New Vegas, and more, simply because with Steam Sales it’s often cheaper to buy the whole blasted all-inclusive “ultimate edition” or whatever than to shell out for the DLC on consoles. On the one hand, sweet, I’m saving money. On the other hand… well, my library’s getting cluttered, both physical and digital.

Anyways, yes, I bought this one for the 400 Days DLC, and so I can have my choices carry over when I inevitably pick up Season 2 when it’s cheaper on steam once again.

The game is an excellent tale exploring hard choices and dealing with doom and inevitability. It’s a beautifully organized work… your first time through. It loses something with repeated playthroughs, as you start to realize the game’s choices don’t really matter and you start seeing how contrived a lot of the negative twists are. Still, it’s one that I’m looking forward to going through again. I’ll just need the tissues handy. Umm!  For… for my girlfriends! All of them! Not me. I’m manly.

Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People


This one was a no-brainer for me. I like cool things, I’m about as attractive as it’s possible to be, and I happen to think Homestar Runner was one of the best things on the internet while it was running.

Speaking of games I bought when I already owned… looks like Telltale’s got a hold of my wallet twice over. This was one of the flagship games on WiiWare back when the service was a possible contender in the console digital distribution arena. With Nintendo’s stubborn management of the service, though, there were no sales to be had, and I was only buying episodes on special occasions. Have I mentioned I’m cheap?

I’m still missing the last one or two on my Wii. Then this pops up on the Steam Summer Sale. Nintendo doesn’t allow prices to change, so they’re still charging ten dollars per episode, as if the game was new. Here? I got all five episodes for the price of one on WiiWare.

It’s a shame, because this game seems poorly optimized for PC. Modern PCs, at least. I kept running into odd bugs, the resolution doesn’t go quite as high as I’d like, and there’s no support for widescreen. Still, with the amount of money I’ve saved over the Wii version, I can’t complain at all.

These are traditional adventure games. Find objects then use them on every other object in the world until you’ve beat the game. The puzzles aren’t very compelling, but the main drive of it is that it’s authentically written and overseen by the creators of the Homestar Runner web animations. The design, humor, and everything else fits in perfectly with the traditional Homestar Runner toons. And with us only receiving one update over the past 4 years? I’ll take whatever content I can get.