Nearly Beyond Earth: Huns in Space


Civilization: Beyond Earth comes out this Friday, and it looks rather nice. As a marked improvement over previous games in the series, it is set in space. In fact, the group of colonists you set off with at its beginning are meant to loosely represent fresh victors from Civilization 5, having conquered the greatest scientific feats Earth can sustain after plastering it with shopping malls and fancy schools.

For old time’s sake, I made a random game at emperor level and tried my damnedest to build a big silly spaceship.

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

First-person narrative-heavy exploration games are usually blunt instruments, and that’s okay. Fans remember Myst as a fantastic world full of secrets–not a game crammed full of infuriating puzzles that most of us needed strategy guides to solve. What counts is the feeling of freedom against the unknown. When this hazy genre convinces players that an uneasy truce exists between their actions and a narrative, exploration feels real because it is.

With a few heavy-handed exceptions, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter treads this line perfectly.

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D&D: Don’t call it a comeback

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Action points and character powers are out. Attribute based saves and a Vancian magic system are in. Some see this as rewinding the clock on Dungeons and Dragons, largely undoing the changes made by fourth edition.

But the more I parse the player’s handbook, the less I agree with that interpretation. Beneath its mechanics, this edition feels more primeval. It hints at a heritage many gamers my age never experienced–one more wonderful and dangerous than I can really explain. I haven’t been this excited for the game in over a decade.

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Dragon Age Replayed

Dragon Age 2

With Dragon Age: Inquisition coming out October 7 November 18 (and me never having  played Awakening, the first game’s expansion) I wanted to get a fresh save file, start to finish, with choices that fit my personal canon. (ed: Another change…save files won’t be importable, but you will be able to choose what protagonists did in the first two games through some sort of website. Glad I went through the trouble. Woo.) The experience went much as I’d thought it might.

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Warren Spector, PRACTICE 2013: Cloud Animals

Any given system–be it the human body, a community, or a game–is composed of individual self-organizing units, or subsystems. Organs make up bodies, people form communities, and sets of reactions compose game mechanics. Each subsystem can likely be broken down yet again into smaller systems of their own.

This relationship seems fairly straightforward until we watch how humans treat systems. “Housing prices are going up, so I’d better invest in the real estate market.” “That celebrity looks great and endorses this diet, so that must be her secret.” “Every good pro uses one particular strategy, so Starcraft must be broken.”

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The Player’s Journey: This cake is delicious

Game reviews are more or less informative, straightforward affairs. Pithy observation, narrative summary, 4/5 stars. Some people do this better than others. Some people say 4 is not the right number of stars. Some people don’t like stars.

Games criticism, a distinctly different topic meant to be concerned with how games work instead of just whether they do, is a tangled, complicated, scary catastrophe. No one agrees on who does it well. Its dark secrets are hidden either inside some of Amazon’s spookier publishing crevices or on blogs that don’t have URLs so much as ritualized handshakes. There are many good theories on how to make individual games, but judging finished games in critical terms seems paradoxically more difficult. How do you examine an art form that is 30 years old, has changed drastically in that time, yet whose first trembling steps remain culturally and critically relevant? How do you create a theory that describes the important elements of both Monkey Island and Amnesia? How about PassageHow do you consolidate huge differences in genre and style, then discuss where the art is heading? 

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ME2 Romantic Replay: It’s complicated


I recently finished my second full clear of Mass Effect 2,  which is also my first time beating the whole game as lady Shepard. Jennifer Hale really owns the character, to the surprise of no one. It also helps that I was busting heads whenever possible–the opposite of how most of my other Shepards have engaged with the locals.

Romance has always been a part of the Bioware formula, and ME2 was when I originally felt that in force. My first Shepard in the original Mass Effect never had anything to do with Liara, because his heart was set on Tali as soon as she stepped onstage. Smart, devoted, and slightly mysterious? Childbearing hips and weird feet? Boxes checked; cranks turned. The romances in Dragon Age: Origins were great, but my arc with Tali spanned the better part of an actual decade. We changed the galaxy together. It felt like an experience larger than an hour or two of dialog and cutscenes. Continue reading

Review: Gone Home

Review: Gone Home

Making new friends was awesome when I was a little kid…especially because I would get to see their homes. Old farmhouses, duplexes, little suburban cubes where the first floor wraps around itself in an attempt to seem bigger than it really is–I was always surprised at how differently people lived. Years later, the sound of pounding down a set of wooden stairs and the texture of carpeting against my face (after passing out playing Final Fantasy 8 until 5 AM) stuck with me. I grew to associate these tactile sensations directly with the people who lived there, and my memories are snapshots of people and sensations all shuffled together.

Gone Home is about the weird space between a dwelling and its dwellers–not quite in a way I could appreciate with my friends–at least, not at the time. Continue reading