Gamerly Musings

Where failed pitches go to shine.

Category: Editorials

Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning My Craft

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

Reviewing and analyzing these three games – one good, one bad, and one somewhere in between – helped to develop my skills as a writer more than any other in 2013. Each of the games are very different, but in my effort to give them the reviews they deserved I grew as a writer. That could be growth in learning new techniques, refining old ones, or finding new perspectives through which to look at the games. Regardless of how it happened, all three of these games helped me learn my craft as a writer in 2013.

Gone Home

goty gone home

By the far the most challenging review I wrote in 2013 was the one I did for Gone Home. I already knew it was going to be something special, the 2012 IGF demo, just the demo, was my game of the year that year after all. And even just from that demo it was revelatory the way it used the environment to infer most of its story outside of Sam’s narrated journal entries. Even the “put back” mechanic, simple as it was, was a stroke of genius in depicting domestic exploration that didn’t devolve into ransacking the place. But most of all, it was Sam’s coming out story that sealed it. Sam’s story felt so true, but was told in such a distinctly game-y way, I still get chills thinking about it.

While playing Gone Home I felt like I was playing something important, a game that would become part of the essential literacy for game critics. The same feeling I got when first playing Bastion or Dark Souls, the feeling that it was a game people would continue to write about for years, dissecting it for every morsel of meaning.

And here I was supposed to review it? To be one of the first voices in that ongoing critical discussion? Yeah, I was a bit intimidated. Read the rest of this entry »

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Musings and Memories of 2013: Learning Humility

Rather than a strict Game of the Year list, at Gamerly Musings I’ll be writing a series of  articles about the games that were most important to me, personally. The games will be roughly grouped together by themes, qualities, or learning experiences that they shared rather than offering awards based on genre or release platform, which I think works out rather nicely for highlighting some under-appreciated games that would never appear on a “best of 2013” list but deserve special recognition in their own right.

The theme of this first post is “learning humility,” highlighting games that caught me off-guard or subverted my expectations in thrilling, surprising, and always humbling ways.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Gunslinger goty

It seems that every year I’m going to be asked to review a game for which I have rock bottom expectations and ends up being one of the highlights of the year. Last year it was I Am Alive, which blew me away with its brutal survival mechanics and story, and this year that pleasant surprise came in the form of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (which, coincidentally, both I Am Alive and Gunslinger were published by Ubisoft).

I already wrote a glowing review when it came out, so I won’t retread through all the reasons it is such an amazing game here, but even now at the end of the year it sticks out in my mind as easily one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2013. Read the rest of this entry »

Beautiful Machinery – The Structure of Zelda: A Crack Between Worlds

For those who haven’t heard, I am beginning a new column called Beautiful Machinery. It will be a twice monthly series of articles examining the artistry and craft of games through their mechanics. I am doing a little experiment with it though, by trying to gain support and funding for the column through Patreon, a service that lets you, the reader, support creators directly on a per article basis instead of going through a major publication. You can pledge any amount per article, even if it’s only $1, your support will be hugely appreciated. The following article is my first piece for Beautiful Machinery and an example of what to expect from the column, looking at The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds and how its item rental system impacts the game’s structure.

Head over to my Patreon page to learn more about Beautiful Machinery and support my writing to make this column a success.

Ravio2

While it seemed fairly unanimous among my colleagues that the new item structure was a cause for celebration in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, I was conflicted about the change as I began playing. There was talk of a more open overworld to explore and being able to approach the game’s dungeons in any order. It essentially boiled down to more player freedom and choice, which I am told are inherently good features in a game.

I am not convinced, though. See, to me, the gatekeeping due to item restrictions was always the highlight of a new Zelda game. I’d see some far off ledge that I couldn’t quite reach, and it would fill me with excitement to discover which item I’d eventually find to let me cross to that ledge.

However, the anticipation and delayed gratification is a key part of that formula. If I could instantly hookshot or glide on a leaf over to the ledge, it wouldn’t be as special an area. It would just be another area just like any other that I could walk to. But by delaying my ability to cross over to the ledge it fills the area with a sense of mystery and discovery. Sure there may be a treasure chest filled with a handful of rupees or a heart piece, but the treasure wasn’t the real reward. The real reward was gaining the ability to travel off the beaten path, and in order to travel off of it, there needs to be a beaten path to begin with.

My fear going into A Link Between Worlds was that every area would feel like part of the beaten path, and that no areas would truly feel special or hidden. And for the most part, unfortunately, this was the case. So long as I had bombs, the hammer, and in one place the hookshot, I could explore pretty much the entire overworld right away. And because Zelda games hand out rupees at a rate that should collapse Hyrule’s economy, it was no problem to rent those items as soon as they became available.

There were some item gates though, and these proved to be my favorite parts of exploring the game’s overworld. I needed to collect flippers before I could swim, giving me that satisfying feeling as a previously off-limits area became mundane, and likewise with areas that were sealed off by large boulders and required the titan gloves. The giant bomb that can follow you in Lorule was also a nice touch, sealing off certain areas until you performed an escort mission that served a similar gating purpose by making the areas it unlocked seem more special than simply using a regular bomb.

Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s the thing about reviews…

Over the past five years of covering the videogame industry (holy crap, has it really been that long?) I’ve noticed many shifting opinions about the purpose of reviews and their role as it relates to critical writing.

To me, first and foremost a review is an informative piece. That is my way of making up jargon that fits both the critical and consumer-facing roles of a review. Because really, it does serve both of those roles, and to disregard or discount the importance of one of those sides seems to me to be missing the point.

So on the one hand you have the consumer-facing aspect of a review. This includes elements to help make a review more accessible to its audience. A score that becomes interpreted as a “buyer’s guide,” references and comparisons to other similar works, and general background info about the work to set up its premise.

But, at least in a good review, these consumer-facing elements are backed up with critical analysis. In the realm of games, this can include digging into the game’s overarching themes, a deconstruction of its mechanics, an investigation of level design and pacing, really any and all critical perspectives can apply.

The idea, to me at least, is to provide readers with some critical perspective that makes them look at a game in a new way. It could be as simple as highlighting a game’s save/checkpoint system and how it increases tension. And after reading a review someone playing the game is suddenly highly aware of this element, gaining a greater appreciation for the game because the review opened the door for them to look at it more critically.

Now, “true critical writing” usually follows a few weeks or months after the reviews hit. These pieces look much deeper into a game’s themes, mechanics, and what have you to provide more specific, and usually more insightful, criticism. That’s awesome, and a highly valuable part of critical writing.

But I feel like the critical element of reviews often gets lost in all of that. People only see the consumer-facing side of reviews, and ignore their greater purpose: to open the doors of critical dialog with their readers. Yes, commenters are by in large a steaming pile of shitbags, but I don’t think that should deter us from offering those critical voices in reviews.

It is a writing philosophy that I think can be applied to any medium, not just games. I read film and television show reviews not to find out if something is worth watching, but to get that “aha!” moment that illuminates some new a critical perspective. I recently read a Breaking Bad episode review (which I now can’t find) that focused entirely on the use of lighting, and it was brilliant. It still discussed the episode in broader strokes as one would expect of a review, but all through the lens of how lighting and shadow was used in each shot. It made me want to watch the episode again and see it all with this new perspective.

That is what a good review should accomplish. Obviously this is harder to achieve in games since to replay a game can be a huge time commitment, but a review should have the capacity to make someone at least want to go back, even if they actually don’t.

To 100% toot my own horn, this is the way I approach my own reviews. I hope that from reading my reviews the audience is able to gain some new perspective or insight that they might have missed. In The Wonderful 101, I tried to offer context for the game as a pivot point between Platinum Games’ past and what could lead to the studio’s future. For Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I tried to highlight how the game uses and disregards the tropes of horror, and used the analogy of a haunted house to convey how the static sense of artifice undermines its atmosphere. For Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse I tried convey the balance between nostalgia and innovation, and how it modern techniques to reinvigorate classic platforming elements that have gone out of style since the 32-bit era.

You’ll notice by reading those reviews that they all still include the consumer-facing buyer’s guide, telling readers whether I think the game is worth their time/money or not. But it is my greater hope that people who read my reviews later notice the aspects that I point out, and, having been given some critical tools in the review, are able to continue the discussion of whether the game is successful or not in accomplishing something.

Apologies that this piece kind of rambles and jumps around, I wrote it pretty quickly in between other assignments just to get it off my chest. This is the beauty of having a personal blog and posting my random thoughts (or gamerly musings) through stream of consciousness rather than through an editor. Hopefully it makes sense to those few out there reading it, and hopefully it will help spark new discussions.

Why I spoiled Gone Home in my review

Before the reviews went up for Gone Home, I knew it was going to be interesting seeing who considered what parts of the game a spoiler.

Almost a year ago when I played the IGF build of Gone Home, I would have agree that Sam’s coming out story was a spoiler. As such I kept the secret, thinking that it played a much larger role in the game. Keep in mind this was a demo that ended when you open Sam’s locker and hear about her first kiss. The story, at that point, culminated in the realization of Sam’s sexual awakening, without any access to the basement, kitchen, dining room, greenhouse, or attic that comprised over half of the entire experience.

After playing the full game my view on its spoiler status changed, and I was excited to read reviews from other writers and see whether they considered it a spoiler or not after playing through the whole thing at once without a first playthrough that ended at the locker.

It turns out mine was the only review (that I saw at least) that mentioned Sam’s coming out story. I was shocked, expecting at least a few to at least acknowledge one of the game’s most prevalent themes. There was actually one other writer who sent me private messages on twitter asking if I thought talking about queerness was a spoiler or fair game for a review, and I explained that I thought it wasn’t. That writer’s review ultimately does not include any reference to Sam being a lesbian.

Now, the argument has been made that it is best to go into Gone Home without any prior knowledge of the plot at all, and I think that is also an acceptable view. But if you are writing a review from that stance, it can be a nigh impossible task. Mentioning that the father is a troubled writer or that the mother is contemplating an affair already breaks that trust, which most reviews had no trouble disclosing. So why leave out the main character, the character who is quite literally the voice of Gone Home?

I believe the fact that Sam’s sexuality is considered a spoiler says more about our culture’s views on homosexuality than it does on the actual game. Homosexuality is still largely considered the taboo “other,” even by allies and many within the LGBT community. That is not “other” in a negative sense, but rather the simple expectation that someone is straight until proven gay, and when that proof is given there is a tendency to act surprised. I am guilty of this as well, it is a pervasive part of our culture.

So even though Sam’s attraction is clear from the very first note mentioning Lonnie, a note most players will find within their first 10-20 minutes, it is still treated largely as a surprise, as an unexpected twist that subverts expectations. Even though there is no grounding for those expectations in how Sam is presented at any point in the game.

Let’s compare the reaction to Gone Home to another recent game with character relationships at its core: The Walking Dead. I would argue that Sam’s relationship with Lonnie is just as central to Gone Home as Lee’s adopted fatherhood for Clementine. And yet reviews had no issue coming right out and (rightfully) praising The Walking Dead for having and developing that relationship. The fact that Lee takes on that father-figure role isn’t a spoiler, it’s how that relationship informs their actions that players will discover and shape the emotional core of the game.

Likewise, it isn’t a spoiler that Sam is attracted to other women. Like the theme of fatherhood, within the theme of “queerness” there are still a vast spectrum of experiences that could be conveyed. Her sexuality simply acts as the framing agent for those experiences.

Just using Sam’s queerness as a starting point it opens tons of story possibilities. Does Lonnie feel the same way? If so, will they stay together? How will Sam’s parents react? How does Sam’s school react? How does this all piece together to explain why Sam isn’t home, and where she might be? Does the fact that Sam is missing have anything to do with why the parents aren’t home? What is going on with the parents anyway? Who is Oscar? Why is the house called “The Psycho House?”

One more question, does Sam’s sexuality ruin the reveal of those more relevant questions?

Knowing that Sam is a lesbian doesn’t spoil the discovery of her Captain Allegra stories and how they evolve with her own self-realization. It doesn’t spoil how her own affinity for writing fiction draws a parallel to Terry, who also tried to make sense of childhood experiences through fiction and received only discouragement from his own father. It doesn’t spoil how the “ghost” of Oscar that caused Terry to become reclusive and jeopardize his marriage was also the catalyst for Sam’s first true love. It doesn’t spoil a strained and complex family dynamic. It doesn’t spoil Sam and Lonnie’s zine, or Sam’s attempt in vain to make her school aware of the abuse and bullying she received because of who she loved. It doesn’t spoil that Sam and Lonnie’s only option was to escape from their expected lives if they had any hope of being happy.

So why did I come right out to say Sam was a lesbian in my review, and spoil Gone Home for all those potential players? Because Sam’s sexuality isn’t a spoiler, and I didn’t actually spoil anything.

The Last of Us, but not the best of us

Since I’m not obligated to write a traditional review here on Gamerly Musings, I’ve decided to parse out my thoughts on The Last of Us in list form since it just makes more sense to me that way. As always with things I write here, spoilers.

Things The Last of Us gets right:

The opening. The first hour of The Last of Us does a fantastic job of introducing Joel and the game’s world. Starting with control of his daughter, you explore the house in a pre-infected state, then find Joel rushing inside being chased by early infected. There’s a nice sense of knowing that the infection is happening elsewhere, but naivete about it actually hitting home, even as things escalate quickly around them. It also features what may be the first time in a Naughty Dog game that your character is being chased and you aren’t running toward the camera while seeing the pursuers behind you. You probably can turn the camera around to look, but I got the sense that doing so would slow me down and get me caught, so I just kept running with an unknown danger at my heels. It’s a heavily scripted scene, but very effective.

The setting. Never let it be said that Naughty Dog doesn’t know how to set a scene. From the ruined buildings and plants reclaiming the streets to the wilderness of the hydroelectric plant and Colorado winter. The art direction has an impeccable attention to detail, with subtle nuggets of information about how survivors lived, or failed to, wrapped into every corner of the world. The sewer nursery and Colorado University campus were particularly well realized examples of world-building.

The acting. The Last of Us probably won’t be on my shortlist for top games of 2013, but it’s definitely up there for one of the top movies of the year. The voice acting is fantastic throughout, and the motion capture for the cutscenes got some amazing footage with body language and inflections to drive the acting home. The only jarring part of the acting was when Steve Blum’s gruff voice kept popping up for the random thugs and soldiers you fight, since his voice is so distinct that it came across as fighting the same enemy over and over rather than a mob. More enemy voice diversity, please.

Winter. Everything about the Winter chapter is the best part of The Last of Us. You finally get to control Ellie, hunting in the woods for survival. She then threatens two strangers with a bow and arrow, and barters her food for medicine, which is the kind of thing I like to see in a survival game (though it would have more impact if characters had a hunger meter or something). David is wonderfully twisted and complex character to add for the chapter, as you go through the initial trials building trust with him through gameplay only to discover he’s the leader of the mob that attacked you in the last chapter.

He’s also a cannibal, and most likely a pedophile since one of his underlings refers to Ellie as his “pet,” though in David’s early scenes he shows just enough humanity that there might me a genuine paternal feeling behind his motivation to steal Ellie away from Joel. The whole stealth fight with David is done well, and I love how Joel arrives just in time to watch Ellie beat David’s face in. Winter is the chapter that shows just how far Ellie has come since the beginning when Joel was trying to shelter her into a survivor capable of handling herself. Of course, she’s also still a kid, which comes out in her attitude and depression in the following chapter after brutally killing most of David’s gang.

Scavenging/crafting. I really like scavenging for materials in survival games, and The Last of Us had plenty of materials to find. Those materials could be used to craft health kits, explosives, and upgrade melee weapons, with some materials needed for multiple items so you had to manage your resources. Well, kind of. The game actually threw too much scavenging material into the environment, and I often had to leave stuff behind because I had maxed out all of my items and the amount of materials I could carry. Abundance aside, the system worked well, and I liked how crafting items was in real-time so you could make items at any time but there was a risk attached if you were in combat.

Things The Last of Us gets wrong:

Partner A.I. Holy hell, the A.I. is dumb in The Last of Us. While I was trying to sneak past clickers with Joel, Ellie and whoever else happened to be along at the moment would run around in tap dancing shoes completely ignoring the fact that we were supposed to be stealthy. And for the most part, as long as I hadn’t been noticed, they could make as much noise as they wanted. It kind of ruins the effect of the stealth portions. But then as soon as I get noticed by an enemy, suddenly the A.I. companions are visible and I have to rescue them. It’s immersion-breaking and really inexcusable considering how much of the first half relies on stealth. When I press crouch, the A.I. should automatically follow suit, even if enemies aren’t actually nearby. It would reinforce both that enemies pose a genuine threat and that Joel is taking on a leader/father role to Ellie if she followed his actions like that.

Notice that Winter was the highlight of the game. David makes for an uncharacteristically competent A.I. partner, shooting enemies to stun them so you can finish them off. His competence, especially after so many miserable A.I. companions, is a big part of why that scene works for building trust in him, or at least wanting him to turn out to be a good guy, and why his betrayal stings even if you saw it coming (which let’s be honest, who didn’t?). David is also only your companion for a short time, after which Ellie and Joel get their own solo segments, which forgoes the entire A.I. problem altogether.

Anything involving guns. I am not convinced that Naughty Dog can make a competent shooter. I’m sorry, I’ve never been a fan of the gunplay in the Uncharted series, and it’s just as wrong-feeling here in The Last of Us. For some reason it always feels much more difficult to aim any gun at close range in a Naughty Dog game, which should be the opposite, and becomes a real issue when fighting the infected. I actually don’t have an issue with the aiming being shaky as other critics have said, but to compensate each bullet should be far more lethal.

Unavoidable combat. Oh, you thought The Last of Us was a stealth horror game? Haha, nope. For each encounter that has a stealthy option there is a scripted sequence where you can’t progress until every enemy in sight has been killed. Usually the unavoidable combat sequences are against heavily armed human opponents, which as I’ve already said anytime the game uses guns the fun level drops drastically. The entire Philadelphia section of the game is excruciating for all of the wrong reasons. Sometimes it will also throw in unavoidable combat with infected, in which case the terrible close-range combat comes into play. Other times it’ll throw a swarm of infected at you and expect you to run, but because the game has established a pattern predominantly of “kill everything to progress” it wouldn’t occur to me to run until after dying several times. Hotel basement with the generator, I’m looking at you.

The focus ability. Joel and Ellie have a unique ability where they can crouch low and see enemies through walls if you hold the R2 trigger. This is super helpful in the stealth portions, and a good addition to the game. So why is the focus ability something The Last of Us gets wrong? Because it has selective usefulness when it comes to scripted scenes. I try to play as a good survivalist, so I’m sneaking practically everywhere, and using the focus ability liberally. But sometimes there will be an infected hiding for a jump scare, or human enemies that are scripted to pop out, and they won’t appear with the focus ability until their scripted trigger is activated. Players should be rewarded for being careful, and at times The Last of Us is just far more concerned with being a thrill ride than giving the player agency.

Magical cutscene injuries. I know, it’s a tired trope that shows up in most games, but that doesn’t make it any less terrible when it pops up in The Last of Us. Even if Joel falling on the metal beam is the catalyst for what leads to Ellie’s starring role in the excellent Winter chapter, it’s still a cheap plot device that A) seems minor compared to the multiple gunshot wounds Joel survived before it and B) wouldn’t have happened if the encounter played out like every other bit of combat in the game. As I already mentioned, I’m a very careful player, so seeing that kind of clumsiness from characters in a cutscene is very jarring. Also, how does Joel survive for a few months until winter in a perpetually deteriorating state, then after one penicillin injection he’s better within 12 hours? Again, yes, it’s game logic, but I feel like for the world they’ve created the consequences should be greater, or at least force players to take care of Joel as Ellie for a longer time before he recovers.

Puzzles. You’d think that at some point during their year-long trek Joel would teach Ellie how to swim. Nope, let’s do the same carry-Ellie-on-a-plank-of-wood puzzle half a dozen times. The ladders and planks were also a good idea that turned into a missed opportunity. Being able to freely position ladders and planks could have led to some tense escape sequences or non-linear exploration, but instead there’s usually only one place you can really use them. It feels like Naughty Dog had big plans for re-positioning ladders, but either ran out of time or got locked into a linear structure and forgot about them halfway into development.

 

Overall, if I had been reviewing The Last of Us, I’d have probably given it something in the 6-7/10 range, with text that strongly emphasized that it is the story that brought up the score, not gameplay. I’d easily recommend either I Am Alive or ZombiU over it, and the fact that both of those came out last year as superior survival experiences greatly influenced my opinion of The Last of Us. Then again, in ZombiU I had the opposite issue, where the story was awful and gameplay was fantastic, so if there was a game that could merge Naughty Dog’s storytelling with ZombiU that would be just about perfect.

Bioshock Infinite: With Vim And Vigor, But Why?

***First of all, spoiler warnings and all that fun stuff. I’m going to write about Bioshock Infinite assuming you’ve played it and completed it. I won’t be extensively examining the ending or some of the major plot twists, but there’s a good chance I’ll make casual reference to them and just assume you know what I mean because you played it.***

It’s interesting having just recently written about thematic consistency in games and then playing Bioshock Infinite. The first Bioshock is one of those games that I would hold up as an excellent example of thematic consistency, where the environment, characters, combat, exploration, plasmids, and pretty much everything except the hacking minigame all reinforce the same general themes about freedom, choice, and having fun at Ayn Rand’s expense.

Bioshock 2, well, to be honest I stopped playing halfway through because those parts where you have to protect the little sister as she collects adam from corpses are just plain annoying. So let’s not talk about Bioshock 2‘s themes right now.

Anyway, back to Bioshock Infinite. Simply as a game, I love it. I literally played the entire thing in one sitting. One 14-hour long sitting from around 10pm to a little past noon the next day. The pacing is kinetic to the point where I just didn’t see any reasonable stopping points. Almost every goal that I thought would be a good stopping point turned out to just be another unresolved launching point for the next objective, and I loved that. Bioshock did the segmented story, with levels that embody particular characters, very well, and I was happy to see that Irrational wanted to experiment with something new for the structure this time. Well, the experiment payed off, for me at least, with the jumbled timelines/dimensions offering plenty of what-the-hell-is-going-on-ness to keep me curious mixed with a sense of continuity to keep me grounded enough not to feel completely lost.

But while I loved the act of playing Bioshock Infinite, there were also a lot of thematic and world-building loose ends by the time the credits rolled.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Post-GDC Indie Divide

GDC 2013 illuminated an interesting trend in the games industry, specifically among indie developers. A divide in the indie community has become more prevalent, perhaps in part because of us (I include myself at fault here) thinking of “indie community” as some unified thing when that term is woefully inadequate for the sheer variety of what is happening in games.

In any case, Cliff Bleszinski astutely pointed out the divide in a blog post, which essentially characterizes the two most vocal sides as optimism and anger. I actually agree with that assessment in those terms, and I also agree with how the optimism angle is described.

“There’s this wonderful, organic, beautiful movement going on in the indie game space. The buzz is intense and all of those developers who have struggled for years to make personal projects, projects that push the envelope in unique ways, projects that are outside the norm.”

However, the other half of the equation has a more problematic description, attributed to having an “utter loathing and disdain for all things mainstream and triple A.” To his credit, Mr. Bleszinski admits that he doesn’t understand the anger. Targeting triple-A games is part of it, certainly, and I can see how someone could confuse it solely as that, but that is also a misunderstanding of where the loathing and disdain are actually directed.

To understand where the ire is aimed we need to first understand who this second group of indie developers are. These are the disenfranchised developers. Queer developers, women developers, people of color developers. This is the Twine movement and a desire to see video games live up to their potential to tell more diverse stories and be used more often as an autobiographical form by a wide range of creators and life experiences.

When Andy Schatz talks about the rise of indie developers during the IGF awards and that “the system we’re fighting kind of likes us now,” he is quite right in one sense. In an industry sense, being indie is “in.” Self-publishing is getting easier on Sony and Nintendo consoles by the day, and Steam’s top-selling list consistently includes indies right along with the triple-A. It’s also not uncommon at GDC to watch as developers at established studios gush praise for indies. It was difficult to talk to some developers without an almost envious adoration for FTL, Kentucky Route Zero, Cart Life, Gone Home, or 140 getting mentioned at some point. If the “system we’re fighting” refers to the general marketplace and publisher culture, yes, indies have made tremendous strides and will only continue to expand in the coming years.

But for the group of developers who are often portrayed as simply being angry and bitter, the “system we’re fighting” is a bit different. It’s a fight against established social systems and attitudes that they are more interested in, and games become the perfect weapon in that fight through their ability to build empathy through interaction. It is an area where the industry, and culture as a whole, have not made huge strides, and so the “indies are on the top of the world!” celebration seems premature in that context.

Other indies are not immune from criticism in this context, so it is definitely not a matter of being anti-triple-A; though triple-A games are the most frequent offenders in that area. Indies that are seen as “projects that push the envelope in unique ways, projects that are outside the norm,” will usually still be based on prevailing gameplay conventions. For example, 140 is an innovative rhythm platformer that is amazing for how it incorporates the beat of the music into jump timing and platform movements, but the actual platforming and level layouts are still fairly standard for the genre. That doesn’t make it bad, I totally think it deserved the audio award for how it all comes together, but to a certain perspective that firm adherence to convention at its core could make it less interesting, and that is totally fair.

(Just to be clear, I haven’t actually seen anyone say anything negative about 140, I’m just using it as a hypothetical because I’ve got that game on the brain after GDC and am blanking on remembering any specific arguments people have made.)

As for where my own opinion on this phenomenon sits, I love all of it. I love that the industry is expanding and shifting toward a more independent model. Triple-A won’t be going away, which is also great, but the greater accessibility to tools and distribution for indies is healthy and necessary for games to grow as an industry and avoid another crash.

At the same time, I love that there are developers addressing more serious social issues through games, because there is a ton of work still to do in that area. They have entirely legitimate concerns with how the industry still operates, especially in terms of diversity, and to simply write them off as angry at triple-A games does every game creator a disservice. I also have an optimistic streak in me, so I want to believe that the expanding of indie games will lead to more games like Lim and Dys4ia. And watch Twine, because that scene is on the cusp of exploding into more mainstream consciousness and becoming the new 2D pixel-art platformer of the industry.

I believe that there is room in the industry for all of this, and that each perspective of developer can learn from the others. But first we need to understand what those perspectives are, which is why I wrote this in response to someone who didn’t seem to understand that. It is also entirely possible that I’ve misinterpreted some perspectives, and I welcome a response from anyone correcting me. This is just how I saw the trend at GDC, and it makes me think video games are heading in an interesting direction. I am very excited to be a part of it as it all unfolds.

Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t Shining Force 2, and that’s ok

It’s strange that in all of these years I haven’t actually written about my favorite game. That one game that will always be my favorite, and quite literally changed my life after playing it. That may seem like hyperbole, but it’s true. I do not believe I would have gotten quite so interested in games, nor would I be writing about them today, if not for Shining Force 2.

Perhaps it was because Shining Force 2 was my first RPG of any kind, that it made such an impact on me. In retrospect I can think of dozens of reasons why I love Shining Force 2, but when I first played it I didn’t have that experience or base of knowledge with which to compare it. I didn’t even know what an RPG was, much less that there were different types.

Actually, I suppose it was that lack of knowledge that is the real reason I latched onto Shining Force 2 so fiercely. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was good, and I wanted more of it. I began seeking out and reading any videogame magazine I could find, in hopes of a hint of something like Shining Force 2. When talking about it I described it as “a game with lots of characters and they gain experience and level up and get promoted and they move around and talk to people in towns and fight with big close-up battles.” (Or at least, in my head that is how I remember 8-year-old me describing it).

Through talking with friends on the playground and clerks at Toys R Us and Funcoland, I discovered that this type of game was called an RPG. So I set out to find other RPGs. My quest for something like Shining Force 2 was stunted by my selection of systems (Genesis, Game Boy, N64, then Dreamcast) but still led me through Revelations: The Demon Slayer, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Harvest Moon 64, Beyond Oasis, Shining in the Darkness, Quest 64, Ogre Battle 64, Pokemon, Ocarina of Time, Diablo 2, Heroes of Might and Magic 3, Silver, Grandia 2, Skies of Arcadia, and many others based on reading magazines and recommendations.

And something strange happened, I began to like these other games. No, they were not like Shining Force 2, but they clearly weren’t trying to be. They were all their own type of RPG (well, arguable about Zelda and Harvest Moon), and I began to appreciate them for their own charms. It was that realization that got me interested in studying game design, and eventually to write about it professionally. Without that urge to find something, anything like Shining Force 2, I don’t know that I would have experimented with so many different types of games and gotten as interested in their design as I am today. So yes, Shining Force 2 literally changed my life.

Now, this entire time I also saw Final Fantasy Tactics taunting me on video store rental shelves. It looked different, with its isometric view and cube-covered landscapes, but I could tell from the back of the game case that it was the Shining Force 2-type of game I had been looking for.

I didn’t own a PlayStation, so it was always just out of reach. But in high school I began working at the local GameStop. Suddenly, I had a source of income, and an employee discount to boot. A PSOne with Final Fantasy Tactics (also FF7 and FF9) was one of my first purchases once I could afford it, and I eagerly set it up and turned on the system.

And I hated it. Yes, I really didn’t like Final Fantasy Tactics when I first played it. The class system was too diverse, so that no character had a clear role. And most of the characters, while they had names, had no real value to the story. I had been able to accept other RPGs because they clearly weren’t trying to be like Shining Force 2, but here I was confronted by a strikingly similar game…and it just didn’t grab me.

Tactics Ogre: Knights of Lodis on Game Boy Advance fared a little better, but ultimately I grew tired of it for the same reasons as Final Fantasy Tactics. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance made matters worse by structuring around missions, and Disgaea’s insistence on recruiting highly-customizable but worthless to the story minions ruined that game as well.

I even tried Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, but the map system between battles just felt too disconnected compared to Shining Force 2’s more traditional JRPG traversal, and eventually I gave up on those too.

If you asked me, I would probably say that tactical RPGs are my favorite genre because of Shining Force 2, but the truth is that I haven’t enjoyed very many of them since that game.

Fire Emblem: Awakening may be the game to change that. I love Fire Emblem: Awakening, I even gave it 5/5 stars in my review, making it the third game I’ve given a “perfect” score in my career. It hits the right balance of having characters with distinct roles in battle, every character fitting into the plot, and strategic battles with a brilliant pairing system. Yes, I still hate the node-based map, and that was a huge hurdle to overcome for me, but the rest of the game was so strong that I hate it slightly less now by association. The character classes are also more flexible than I normally prefer, but I’ve even been able to get used to that and have flipped some character roles around using second seals.

For what may be the first time, I am able to appreciate a tactical RPG for what it actually is instead of being frustrated with what it does differently from my favorite game. Maybe it’s just my tastes changing/maturing over time, and I’m excited to now go back and see if I can get more out of Final Fantasy Tactics and some others. But whatever the reason, I can finally accept that Fire Emblem: Awakening is not Shining Force 2, and that’s perfectly fine.

Diversity Isn’t The Spice Of Life, It’s The Source

One of the more common, and more surprising, reactions I received to my little post on game writers as a “club” was regarding the idea of discovery. A shocking number of aspiring writers commented to me on twitter and via email that it never occurred to them to send out pitch emails to editors. Now, I can understand not knowing how to go about sending pitch emails, I still struggle with that every day, but to not think that it’s necessary? I’d like to address that.

Marco Polo wasn’t an editor for a gaming magazine or website. History buffs, quiet down, I’m trying to make a metaphor here. I love my editors, I really do, but seeking out and discovering new talent isn’t really in their job description. I’m not saying that as a “what’s wrong with games journalism” problem that needs to be solved, either. It’s simply a reality of time management that they can’t be expected to also peruse every blog out there to find the next great freelance writer. Editors are busy people, working long into the night on a fairly regular basis just to carry out their day-to-day tasks. To continue the Marco Polo metaphor, editors are in fact the various indigenous countries and nations. It’s not that they don’t like to travel, most editors are eager to get their hands on new writers that they can rely on. It’s just that obligations to their own publication limit their ability to actively seek writers out. Sure, there is the rare exception where an editor will discover a new writer from a personal blog post, but even in those cases it’s usually a result of the editor seeing a writer they trust linking to the post on twitter, rather than the editor discovering the post first-hand. It’s possible, and has happened, but it happens so infrequently that it’s a hard method to rely on.

Writers, on the other hand, are the explorers, and as freelance it is in our best interest to secure trade routes with as many nations (aka publications) as possible. Pitches are how those working relationships are established. There are tons of reason why pitches are the right way to go about approaching editors, but to me the most important one is simple respect for an editor’s time. Remember, you are providing a service to editors; they are helping you out by giving you work, but you are equally helping them by providing content. The ability to convey a 1000+ word feature article in a concise one-paragraph pitch shows that you respect an editor’s busy schedule, as well as showing you have the writing chops to express your ideas clearly. True, editors won’t always reply to your pitches, but think of it this way: do you always reply to PR emails that you aren’t interested in? No, I can pretty much guarantee that you don’t. Simply as a survival and self-defense mechanism, it doesn’t do anyone any good to take non-replies personally.

Now, I don’t know if this is mere coincidence, but all of the aspiring writers who expressed that pitches were a revelation came from Bitmob. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t really know the site and its internal writer culture very well, so I’ll try and avoid making sweeping generalizations as much as possible. I’m not blaming anyone, but when perusing the Bitmob mission statement I came accross this excerpt:

“Think of Bitmob as a blog network of sorts, so anyone can stop by and check out whatever it is you have to say. So you can see why we want you to register with your real name and email address! It would sure suck if we (or some other organization) were to recognize your awesomeness and wanted to hire you for some freelance or full-time work, only to not be able to get a hold of the real you.” (emphasis added is mine)

This was a view repeated by many, with one aspiring writer telling me after a long conversation on the subject, “I naively assumed I’d have editors knocking on my door for a while there.” When I see something like that, the only suitable response I can think of is to give the writer a hug and whisper “there, there, it’ll be all right.”

Don’t get me wrong, Bitmob is an amazing resource for an aspiring writer. It provides an outlet to get your writing published, which is no small thing. But there’s extra legwork involved to make that mean something if you hope to make writing a career. Find game journalists on twitter and link them to your articles when they contribute to a topic being discussed. Include 3-4 writing samples in your pitch emails to editors, giving them an indication of your abilities. But sitting and waiting for the benevolent editor fairy to come and grant you a job? Remember: you are Marco Polo, and he certainly didn’t become famous for what he did before his ship left the harbor.

To that end, the real point I want to address is that of diversifying. My first big break as a writer came in June 2011 when I was published by GamePro, and I began getting fairly regular assignments from them afterward. Naively, in my head this became dreams of a full-time editor job if I could only prove myself, and I put all of my freelance focus into my work for them. Then, in November, GamePro announced that it would shut down completely. Suddenly I was adrift, and forced to scramble madly for new work. It taught me a valuable lesson, though, that I am grateful to have learned so early in my career. Not that I’m worried now that every outlet is on the verge of closing. If I thought that then I would switch careers entirely. But it wasn’t enough for me to rely on a single publication. My future in freelance will depend on my ability to continue writing as much as possible for as many sites and magazines as possible.

Diversifying doesn’t just apply to writing for a large number of publications, but also topics. I’ve lately had to turn down assignments from editors for reviews and previews because I haven’t diversified enough. For example, having never played any MMO before, I was unable to review The Old Republic when the opportunity arose. I believe that turning the assignment down was the right decision, since my lack of familiarity with the genre would make it difficult to judge how successful the game is in its goals. The editor also seemed to respect me for my honesty, giving me a fairly major assignment shortly afterward. But “no” is never an easy thing to say as a freelance writer, and had I background experience in the genre I would have been able to take on that review as well as the big assignment that followed. The fact of the matter is that I missed out on work, and that is never a good thing. Fulfilling a niche can certainly be a good way to get in the door with a publication, that’s how I did it after all, but I’ve found that the more topics I am versed in the more likely I am to receive work.

I don’t really have a neat and tidy conclusion prepared with which to tie this all together, at least not one that I can write without sounding excessively preachy. I don’t want to turn into “that guy” who is telling people they have to do something a certain way in order to succeed, in large part because there is never a guarantee of success no matter how you go about it. This post is merely my observations and reactions, with my own experience to provide context as to why I see things the way I do. I’ll end by simply reiterating that editors are not Marco Polo, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to play “Marco Polo” with them via email.