Category Archives: Video Games

Chess is Getting Me Through the Pandemic

We all saw those memes. They told us we should pick up a new skill during the pandemic, as if we were at summer camp wondering if we should take the option for orienteering or keep our evenings free. What a time to survive, and have all this trauma-infused free time to be guilted over inefficiency.

Yeah, I already picked up a hobby – it’s called wondering when the pandemic will be over and I’m really good at it. Oh, conservatives don’t want to wear a mask, it’s gonna be another winter of COVID! I guess my new skill is being the Pennsylvania Dutch to these groundhog motherfuckers.

Yet a lot of time being stuck in one place wears on you. Avoiding travel and socializing because I don’t think a weekend of glamping is worth someone’s grandma’s life means you’ve got to find something new to dodge the cabin fever.

Lo and behold: chess. I only arrived at one of the earliest hobbies known to humankind.

I’d tried to get into chess before. The problem is that as a beginner, it means losing a lot before I was any good. It’s discouraging to struggle with level 5 of “Chessmaster” and realize there are 20 more levels beyond it that I may never beat. It doesn’t help that I feel a pressure to be perfectionist and I’m really self-critical when I fail at something. It doesn’t help that games are my outlet for my competitiveness in the first place. That doesn’t plug in well when I’m sitting three levels above the picture of the A.I. Chimpanzee. If you start playing chess, it means losing a lot if you want to get any better. That’s just the reality.

As a beginner, it’s also hard to view chess as anything other than win-loss. Without knowing the game well, it’s hard to recognize that mitigating a disadvantage or drawing out a loss with smart plays is a kind of victory when it comes to getting better at the game. Getting a draw or quality loss where you couldn’t before is a huge mark of improvement.

There are two big things that finally got me over the intimidating learning curve of chess. Let’s start with the trendier one:

Chess on Twitch

I like Twitch, or rather I like that the platform exists. The company itself is a mess, but that’s another conversation. Streaming as a whole is the single biggest and most accessible medium for performance art the human race has ever had. Just like video games, movies, TV, theatre, and literature, it means a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a lot of mediocre mixed in.

The way streamers create narratives and content is often very connective. It means a lot of leaping from one channel to another. I can’t quite remember how I got to BotezLive, but I’m guessing it’s through JustaMinx, a foul-mouthed Irish streamer who often embraces the performance art aspect of streaming and who’s one of the platform’s most talented comedians. I started watching her because she was the funniest person on AustinShow’s “Love or Host”, a weird satire of dating shows where 80% of the cast is the same every episode, which I watched (and was surprisingly entertained by) because a friend was on an episode.

That four-layered path brought me to BotezLive, a chess channel where two sisters break down games. I started watching it at length when Woman’s Master Alexandra Botez and (combined) Grandmaster Robert Hess were covering the Chess9LX tournament in September 2020. That tournament featured some of the best players in the world, including the legendary Garry Kasparov. He retired from competitive chess in 2005, in large part to involve himself in activism opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin. This saw him jailed and beaten after attending a verdict reading in support of activist punk band Pussy Riot. After increasingly fearing for his life, Kasparov would become naturalized in Croatia and essentially live in exile.

Since retiring, he’s also coached some of the biggest names in chess, including Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura – who were also playing in the online Chess9LX tournament. Why Chess9LX?

The tournament refers to a version of chess usually called Chess 9LX, Chess 960, or Fischer Random Chess. In this variation, the home rank pieces for both players are randomized. In other words, rooks, bishops, knights, queen, and king are shuffled within their row. You still need bishops on opposite colored squares, you still have to have a rook on either side of the king to allow castling, and the players’ positions have to mirror the other. The variation leads to 960 unique starting positions, hence the nickname.

Chess 960 random start example
One example of a randomized starting position in Chess 960.

The randomization of starting positions undermines the effectiveness of traditional chess openings, and is often viewed as forcing riskier, more creative games.

Alexandra Botez and Hess were an exceptionally good casting team, helping to break down the game in ways that are easy for a beginning player such as myself to understand.

The really useful thing about chess on Twitch is that there are streamers who cater to every level of the game. As I’ve found since, Alexandra Botez and her younger sister Andrea do a superb job of describing opening theory and basic strategic guidelines that can help a beginning or intermediate player improve. As sisters, they play off each other well, with one slowing the other down when they start getting ahead of the audience on analyzing games.

This helps especially when it comes to popular blitz, bullet, or lightning styles – those chess games that typically only allow five minutes or fewer for each player to make all their moves. Often, these lead to a losing opponent with more time on the clock simply running their opponent’s clock down – which results in a win. This adds another layer of strategy, and helps educate beginning and intermediate players in how to mitigate a disadvantage. Drawing out a game you’re losing might seem rude, but prolonging a loss can help create opportunities to even things out.

The speed of these chess types makes them a popular spectator sport online, but both Botez sisters think about the game much faster than I can follow. It’s their skill as analysts, at breaking a game down more deliberately, showing where someone created an opening or how a mistake was telegraphed – that all helps me start to apply my fledgling pattern recognition to their games.

Chess casting isn’t just educational about the game, but has gotten genuinely good. Because it’s so focused on in-game strategy, I’d say it’s much better than the commentating for major league sports. When a sport isn’t at the viewership level of one of the major leagues and is still building its audience, there’s a vested interest in commentators teaching the game – how to play it, how to view it, where and when to pay attention. Even moves that seem inconsequential can help set up later strategies. In teaching an audience to recognize this, you teach them how to knowledgeably watch your sport – how to become as excited about a pawn moving a space as you are about a sacrificed queen.

BotezLive got me into chess because they helped make understanding the game the exciting part of playing – not whether I won or lost. I started getting better at the game only once I found it more interesting and full of possibility. It made chess more of a process and less of a competition – a game I can pick up and play during a quiet moment, set aside a few days without playing, and then watch and play for hours on a weekend. Both sisters are very good at describing strategy for beginners, and Alexandra Botez is often recognized as a popular, up-and-coming commentator.

There’s a wealth of good chess streamers today. As I said, they cater to many different levels. As I’ve shifted more squarely into an intermediate level (an ongoing process), I still mainly watch the Botezes, but I’ve been able to start following streamers like International Masters Anna Rudolf, Levy Rozman, and Grandmaster Robert Hess without becoming befuddled. This is by no means a complete rundown of chess streamers, just the few I’ve found most interesting and accessible as a beginner into intermediate player.

It’s not a coincidence that they all commentate as well. As chess grows in popularity, there are opportunities in casting live events beyond the sphere of diehard players and to a wider, more general audience of spectators. You can see a notable difference in younger commentators explaining the game in a way new players understand vs. older commentators going denser with the assumption their audience is more knowledgeable. Neither’s a better approach, they just serve different audiences. As a newer player, I’m obviously going to gravitate to the former.

Chess Games are Everywhere

The other element is the preponderance of chess games that are available. I’d join a local chess club, except: pandemic. I also like a good mix of A.I. opponents and the option to play others online. I can train specific aspects of my game and learn to avoid my most common blunders against an A.I., and then take what I’ve learned into live games against other players. You can’t go back three moves to see how you set up your own blunder while a real opponent is waiting for your move; an A.I. opponent is as patient as you need it to be. That breadth of ways to play is a lot to ask, but luckily we’re not wanting for options:

Chess.com may be the most complete answer. Its free version allows play against online opponents, offers a lot of historical and more recent game variants, as well as a limited number of A.I. opponents and daily puzzles. It has various paid tiers, but the basic one ($29 a year) eliminates ads and opens up 67 A.I. opponents with different habits, as well as various analytical tools for their system to describe to me exactly why I suck and where I started sucking most. It’s a good investment if you’re going to use it a lot. If you’re dabbling, the free version already outpaces most paid chess games if you just want to play chess against other people and a few A.I.s.

“Chessmaster” is a game I bought on Steam ages ago – in 2011 or something, which was approximately 30 years ago. They don’t even sell it any more. It displays in a little 800×600 window and just stretches everything miserably when you ask it to go full-screen. Yet it is beautiful, with one of the best training modes I’ve seen, endlessly generated puzzles, and a roster of absolutely vicious A.I. opponents who each have preferred styles:

Beginner opponent Sonja overvalues queens, whereas the next rung up features Jonesie, who likes queen trades. Some opponents will have good opening knowledge, whereas others are strong in the middle and endgame. You have to adjust your game as you get good enough to face each new opponent. Chess.com is clearly better on most fronts, but “Chessmaster” is like a warm blanket I never want to give up. I’ve also never felt the keenly burning hatred toward Chess.com’s overly friendly A.I.s that I have toward the silent, smugly smirking faces on Chessmaster.

"Chess Ultra" Santa Monica DLC image
“Chess Ultra”: For when your GPU wants to play chess, too.

“Chess Ultra” is at the other end of the spectrum, favoring visuals over everything. The game can be played the way I do on a traditional monitor, but it’s designed for VR. Its strength is its various settings: it’s great to play in a luxury cabin as the wintry winds howl outside, in an apartment overlooking Mulholland, or on the Santa Monica beach, especially in a year where we’ve had to stick in place and avoid traveling. It features beautifully detailed chess sets and locations, many as overpriced DLC. No, I’m not paying $5 for a set where you can’t tell the pieces apart; I’m playing chess, not wearing it to the Met.

“Chess Ultra” is easily the most graphically-demanding chess game I own and will not work on a tablet or laptop with an integrated GPU. Its limited range of tutorials and puzzles feel like an afterthought, its ratings system is nonsensical, and the game’s frozen on me once or twice…but the base game regularly sells for $5 and includes a few settings and piece sets. In terms of playing chess in a satisfying, responsive way, it’s OK. In terms of pretending I’m chessing it up on a buggy Holodeck, it’s the best.

Chess is also playful. “The Chess Variants Club” is a $5 game on Steam that collects a huge range of chess variants from across history. It’s early access, which means it’s available to play now but still in active development. I love it. It has Microchess and Demi Chess, variants that take place on small boards using a fraction of the pieces. It has the aforementioned Chess 960.

That’s all before the really weird shit: Atomic Chess involves destroying both the capturing and captured piece, as well as certain pieces on any bordering space. Circe chess involves captured pieces getting reborn in their starting positions. Dunsany’s Chess is an asymmetric variety featuring a traditional set of Black pieces, but the White pieces just being 32 pawns. Want six knights a player? Play Knight Supreme Chess.

My favorite might be Aleut Chess, wherein the Aleut people were found to have adapted Russian chess into a whole new game where two asymmetric forces are staggered across the entire board.

Aleut Chess starting positions from "The Chess Variants Club".
The asymmetric starting positions of Aleut Chess in “The Chess Variants Club”.

The list goes on, and while Chess.com has a slightly more gimmicky selection of variants, “The Chess Variants Club” dives into historical variety. Some of the more limited variants are more curiosities than anything else. There are only so many possible sequences in the 4×4 Silverman chess, for instance. It’s interesting to sample, but once you know the trick, it’s solved. Most of the variants are deeply involving and challenging in new ways, though. They’ve also helped my midgame a lot by forcing me to get more creative and recognize less predictable development. Its selection of puzzles isn’t bad either.

“The Chess Variants Club” is under construction, adding in new variants while quashing bugs. It lacks a 2D option, has only one set design so far, plays the same (super-awesome) song over and over, and only has three levels of difficulty. I’ve also encountered rare bugs with the A.I. not allowing a move that should be available. A lot of the A.I. is being designed for new variants that haven’t been programmed before, so this is to be expected. All in all, though, it’s an expanding collection that develops my game in this amazing, exciting notional museum of playable chess variants.

That’s not even getting into “5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel”. This hurts my brain. An average game involves pieces traveling back in time to create new universes where they existed earlier on the same board. Eventually, you’re playing forward in multiple universes. It may be advantageous to create a universe where you have two queens on the board, but that means the one who escaped this universe is no longer there to help it.

Pieces can move through multiverses in ways that reflect how they move in chess. A bishop can move up or down a universe, but only once for every square they move into the past. In other words, their travel through universes and time is always diagonal. A knight can travel two universes away, but only one board into the past; or two into the past, but only one universe away. It reflects the knight’s classic L-movement. Needless to say, things get complicated and mind-bendingly hard to track quickly.

"5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel"
Welcome to Hell.

I haven’t even tried with the set of new pieces with new rules designed specifically for multiverse time travel because every time I try to wrap my head around the normal variety, it goes all the way around, meets itself, and thinks, “Oh, you’re here, too?” Writing about it sends a chill of awe down my spine at how much there is to learn that I haven’t yet.

Hell, I haven’t even tried “Four Kings One War”, a free game where two players each control two sets of pieces that descend on a central board from all four sides, setting up a modern “guerilla chess”.

I’ve also got a traditional game on my phone that’s limited in scope but has a good range of A.I. levels. Take your pick, there are a thousand free, mobile chess games, and each of them has ads more annoying than the last.

As good as chess is, I don’t think I would have gotten into it if I hadn’t found chess streamers who are good at breaking the game down and teaching what about it keeps them interested and excited. As good as chess streamers are, I wouldn’t have kept playing without a bunch of different options to do so. Chess.com is great, but sometimes I want to take my new skills back to “Chessmaster” and show 1229-rated A.I. Miranda what’s up. Yeah, I got better while you’re stuck in 10th Edition “Chessmaster” forever neglecting the center. Who’s up next? Oh no, not 1365-rated “Josh – Age 7”, that dude has no heart.

And sometimes I want to play shitty chess while the wind buffets my luxury library-cabin. And then rove around a museum playing five different variants. And then name my bishop Kyle Reese and send him back through time to protect my queen in an alternate dimension long enough for her to travel back to this one and open up a can. If I get frustrated or hit a wall where I don’t feel I’m learning well in one mode, I can just watch an entertaining streamer teach, or hit another chess game with a different presentation or variant, and it feels fresh again.

You can’t get cabin fever when you keep moving around. Even if you’re stuck in the same place, oh what ways we have to move around. This last year has sucked, and chess for me isn’t a new hobby or skill. It’s a vast range of landscapes, perspectives, connections, experiments, histories. It’s a whole field of art and sport and invention to appreciate that I know how to look at in a way I didn’t before.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

One Thing Free: “The Old Tree”

One of my favorite experiences in gaming is the 10-15 minute game that stands as a single idea done well. Usually these are free. They often serve as a proof of concept or a brief artistic experiment. The mechanics themselves tend to be simple, and the gameplay easy. They’re atmospheric and lend a sense of ease or relaxation that longer experiences can have trouble delivering. “The Old Tree” by developer Red Dwarf Games is one of these.

Most longer games need to present more gameplay complexity, demanding more obstacles for you to overcome and systems to master. A short game doesn’t need to do that. They can instead focus on the mood and art, or sometimes the character and message, standing alone.

“The Old Tree” is a very straightforward 2D puzzler. You play as a…plant? tendril? thing? Kind of an apple with antennae. You crawl from room to room, trying to get to the top of an old tree. Or rather, the character crawls – you don’t control any motion. Instead, your job is to solve light puzzles so that your apple octopus can make it to the next room. The character patiently waits for you to unblock the way and then crawl along.

The art is very good. The creature you play sparks of claymation, while the visuals around them are moodily dim without ever feeling obscured. The music suggests more otherworldly mystery than threat. The experience might be slightly unnerving if it wasn’t all so calm.

I enjoy games like this because you can put your attention into them completely. You’re not dedicating dozens of hours climbing up a skill tree or collecting every icon in an open world. Don’t get me wrong, I can get lost in those games, but this is one I can focus on calmly and where I can complete the experience quickly. I never get distracted from the artistic impulse that drives it, whereas a Gwent addiction in “The Witcher 3” or tracking down every collectible in a “Far Cry” can sometimes start to blunt the beauty and commodify the mystery of those worlds.

There are no distractions in “The Old Tree”, just a delicious looking applctopus on a linear path with 10 minutes of puzzles that serve as a way to exist inside this beautiful art. The ending is relaxing and rewarding, and you can sit with it for a moment if you wish.

It’s both an ideal free game and an ideal short game.

“The Old Tree” can be played free in a web browser on the developer’s site, or on Steam.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

 

Virtual Tourism Where You Least Expect It — “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare”

CoD Nigeria warning

by Vanessa Tottle

My life is like a Doom painting right now. Don’t confuse that with a Doom painting. Sometimes field work is being hunched over a 70 million year-old skeleton before going back to camp, fighting the elements around a campfire, and telling a story you’ve told a thousand times before as if for the very first time while you drink hot coffee like it’s Ambrosia of the gods. It’s that feeling you get in a book when you exist in a world that isn’t anything like the four walls around you.

And sometimes field work is taking an ancient jeep back to port, fixing the jeep because it breaks down halfway there, getting told your associate’s boat is delayed a week, which is great cause he has all the petty cash, going back to camp, fixing the jeep because it breaks halfway back, getting a call that says your associate is in town and where are you, fixing the jeep again so you can go back to town the next morning and get him, finding out once you get there he got his own ride instead, and stopping on the road as you pass him trying to fix his driver’s truck, which looks like the result of an unholy union between a dump truck and a VW bus, and has a flatbed filled with the only kind of goat in the world to which you’re allergic. Maybe it is more like a Doom painting.

The point is, sometimes I come back from the field content to nest in bed with a good book about fairies getting along splendidly, and sometimes I come back from the field clawing open the latest technological marvel that lets me headshot 10,000 bad guys who deserve it because they wear uniforms that have green instead of blue and drive trucks that look like VW dump buses. Call of Duty waffles back and forth between being a franchise about reinforcing patriarchy by eliminating third-world nobodies who look at us funny and reinforcing military-industrialism by saving the world from megalomaniacal dictators who now look like Kevin Spacey but don’t even come close to existing in the real world.

It’s a bad franchise, but it scratches an itch, and I probably got that itch from those fucking goats. Something funny happens in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, though. Call of Duty exists in an awkward valley between gameplay mechanics that tell you “shoot everything” and artists who want to make social statements by how they design the locales you’re about to blow up. Whenever they have a good message about who you’re shooting and why, they undermine it by having you shoot everybody by the end anyway.

Luke Plunkett at Kotaku details one moment in a sequence in Nigeria, where you’ll see, “This house is not for sale beware of 419,” scrawled across the sides of houses. This references real-life tactics used in Nigeria designed to warn and organize against local scammers.

It’s a brief instance that will be overlooked by most players, since many don’t even play the single-player component, but artists in games make statements just like artists in any other medium. It’s up to players to recognize these moments and echo them, so that artists in a medium at war this very moment realize making social statements – no matter how small – can be a good use of time and resources that paying customers appreciate, understand, and support.

Now go read Plunkett’s piece. I’m very tired, so I’m going to finish out the single-player before going online, hearing, “You’re a girl, how big are your tits??!?!!” a million times from other players and saying, “Not as big as my score,” as I shoot them in the face, which carries its own metaphorical value.

October 16 is Now Brianna Wu Day

Stop GamerGate

by Gabriel Valdez

I’m declaring today Brianna Wu Day. Why? Because of this.

What’s this? It’s the piece Brianna Wu just ran on XOJane about her experience with GamerGate.

We told you yesterday that GamerGate was asking for it, that the tide was already shifting, that their unbridled misogyny is creating icons that the hate group won’t be able to stand against. You can only persecute a group of people so long before one of them stands up and hands your ass to you.

So go read this, and after you’re done reading it, have yourself a Happy Brianna Wu Day and celebrate this by sharing it on whatever platform you can log into.

Why We’re Thanking GamerGate

No Girls Allowed

by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez

Dear GamerGate, what is it about my gender that pisses you off so god damn much? Anita Sarkeesian. Zoe Quinn. Brianna Wu. If you really cared about objectivity in games journalism, instead of persecuting women because you can, you would go after pay-for-play, or the AAA developers’ use of influence and access to manipulate critics. You wouldn’t be sending rape and death threats to single-employee studios.

That’s Vanessa in the bold, this is Gabe in the plain text. Every woman I know in the gaming industry has received physical threats. Every one of them. Elizabeth Tobey’s written about them, Meagan Marie’s shared them in interviews, and countless others who shy away from the spotlight have relayed that they have each endured threats that have escalated to FBI referrals.

It is the only combination of job and gender I know for which the chief requirement is being able to interface with the FBI.

Here’s the shocking thing – I know more men who are leaving the industry because of this than women. Men who can’t take selling a piece of their souls to sit idly by while this shit happens. I know more women for whom this has crystallized their desire to enter the industry than ever before.

Those supporters of GamerGate don’t know what’s about to hit them. Yes, hate is effective over the short term – nothing rallies better than hate – but after it blows over, after its core audience inevitably finds some new distraction, GamerGate’s going to be a buried artifact of the past.

A funny thing I learned working as a campaign manager in Oregon is that negative campaigning is usually met with an equal and opposite reaction. Single out something negative about your opponent (whether true or false) and you can raise funds off it and gain points off it, but so will your opponent. It’s been shown again and again that these negative campaign moments are mirrored by accuser and accused pretty much dollar for dollar, polling point for polling point. The result is that negative campaigning has very little real effect on ongoing campaigns. It simply raises the awareness of politicians’ names on both sides. Even in the most hate-filled campaigns, whoever wins (be it accuser or accused) will find a readier and more willing audience down the road. The effect, whether intended or not, is only to celebritize the eventual winner.

The hateful core of GamerGate should have learned after their hatred of Sarkeesian KickStarted her career. After she sought $6,000 for her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, she raised $158,922. You may have made her life difficult, but your hatred and harassment escalated the conversation surrounding her to such levels that she became an overnight sensation. You didn’t create your worst enemy – she was already on her way to kicking your ass. But you did give her a much, much bigger audience to watch her do it.

History does not remember the passing hate of a moment. It remembers the people who respond to it. Sometimes, a culture responds to it the wrong way. Sometimes, a culture responds the right way. Take a look around, GamerGate, at the women you’ve boosted onto MSNBC, CNN, at the surge of concern you’ve caused not just in the gaming community, but in American culture at large.

How do you think this culture is responding to you? You’re already losing steam, your casual members have left you, you’re continually chased off Reddit, and you’re paying for your crusade essentially out-of-pocket. I haven’t seen a single one of you show your face on a network.

Meanwhile, conversations about gender-equality in gaming that were once comfortably pushed off as avoidable and eventual are now being treated as imminent and immediate. Including women and their perspectives is now a front and center concern for developers and publishers. Your harassment of these women – death threats, forcing them from their homes, hacking their finances – has forced the industry to reassess how they treat female employees in the workspace, as well as female characters in their stories.

Keep in mind what I said about politics. Negative campaigning only works for the winner, giving her a bigger audience down the road. You have accelerated the increasing role of women in game design and criticism in a way you couldn’t fathom.

Donations to games designed by women have increased. Coverage of women in game design has increased. Women appearing on news channels or addressing crowds of thousands have only ever encouraged more of us to look at what they do and say, “I want to do that, too.” You are creating a generation of women game designers by shaping and popularizing the icons who will inspire them.

The only mark GamerGate will leave – the only mark – is in the surge of strong women who will learn to create games just to spite you, to show you they can, and because they see other women having the kind of success measured by CNN and crowds and the number of articles on them, whose names pop up on Google now as first options. They will see those women and hear their voices and regardless of what you say, game design will become a more viable and desirable option for them.

You didn’t make these icons for women in game design. They were already on their way to kicking your ass. But you did exponentially increase their audience, an audience that is overwhelmingly siding with them.

This is Gabe. Thank you GamerGate, because the games this surge of women create in just a few years’ time? They’re going to piss you off so much, and I can’t wait to play them.

This is Vanessa. Thank you GamerGate. Your hate has given us icons tempered by fire. They had strong voices before, but now they stand above the industry itself. You took individual critics and developers and, by your hate, you have made them arbiters.

This is Amanda Smith. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Rachel Ann Taylor. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Cleopatra Parnell. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Shayna Fevre. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Eden O’Nuallain. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Olivia Smith. Thank you GamerGate.

This is Himura Sachiko. Thank you GamerGate.

E3 Reactions — Gabe Valdez’s Top 3

Witcher 3 Wild Hunt

I’m a story addict. If you don’t have a story, you won’t keep my attention. The greatest reward for me isn’t a new level or new ability or new armor. It’s more plot. There are three broad lines of thought on how narrative in video games takes place now.

The first demonstrates how game development branched off of filmmaking – classical linear narrative. This has you follow a pre-scripted story, using either gameplay mastery (like in Mario or Sonic) or architectural exploration (like in Doom or Quake) to progress you from one moment to the next. The finest example of this at E3 was Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Games, especially a decade ago, were obsessed with World War II – it was a necessary war in an age of unnecessary ones, filled with tales of individual heroism in the last war where the majority of combatants could see each other’s faces.

World War I has been largely ignored in gaming. It was a meaningless war played at by endangered monarchs desperate to measure the size of their armies against each other. Its biggest impacts on history were mechanized warfare, chemical weapons, and laying the political groundwork that led to Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. Gameplay would be difficult to adapt – trench warfare consisted of weeks of digging out your own third-world country followed by minutes of mass murder. In other words – not something that can be easily or respectfully game-ified.

Yet game developers are beginning to feel brave about making artistic statements. Critics of other art forms – most famously the late Roger Ebert – have repeatedly claimed games cannot be art. I always held the sneaking suspicion that Ebert might not have truly felt this, but rather used his position and bearing as a challenge to developers to start prioritizing art over entertainment. Regardless, the indie boom of the last few years (which Eden O’Nuallain wrote about on Monday) has forced major developers to look at telling more difficult, emotionally challenging stories. And if the trailer for Valiant Hearts: The Great War can make me well up with tears inside of two minutes, I have high hopes for the game itself.

The second narrative style is emergent narrative. These are typically formed in open worlds, or sandbox worlds (as Forrest Walker discussed for us on Tuesday). Developers design these worlds to exist without the player – characters and animals in the world will carry out daily functions regardless of the character’s intervention. Involve yourself in any number of pre-scripted plots or just point yourself in a direction and go, creating your own plot along the way.

The most famous example is The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a high fantasy world of craggy mountains and foggy marshes. Follow a main plot involving the emergence of dragons and a bloody civil war, become a thief, go to a school of magic, or just book it to the nearest pub and make a quiet living as an explorer or hunter. Or do all of the above at once. These narratives are called “emergent” because many of the story elements arise out of the functions of the ongoing world itself. The world-building, geographical design, and artificial intelligence need to be top-notch in order to create a believable-enough illusion of a land that existed long before you arrived. Every player will have a different experience.

This brings me to No Man’s Sky, a title that evokes in name and gameplay the pioneering freedom of Firefly.

Emergent narrative hasn’t been developed very strongly in space flight games. Choosing to be an explorer, a soldier, a mercenary, a trader, a manufacturer…none of that’s new in the genre. What is new is being able to set foot to ground and explore the very surface of a planet, discovering new flora and fauna while mapping out planets like an intergalactic John Muir. (Intergalactic John Muir is all I’ve ever really wanted to be, by the way.) I’ll probably end up shooting spaceships in this game at some point, but what really excites me about it is the evocation of exploration and discovery in a science-fictional setting.

The last narrative style is that of choice. Think of a more mature version of Choose Your Own Adventure. This transfers the architectural exploration of early games into a narrative exploration of motivations and philosophical imperatives. Players are given agency to make decisions that guide how the plot develops.

Choice is something that movies, books, poetry, theatre, no other medium can really do very well. Yet it’s something that gaming can do beautifully. It’s not mutually exclusive to linear narrative or sandbox worlds – it’s more of a modifier that can be applied to either. The Walking Dead is a linear game that comes to an emotionally devastating yet philosophically uplifting conclusion; it’s built not so much from the choices you’ve made as it is from the very act of choosing in the first place.

Perhaps the best gaming moment I’ve encountered was in Mass Effect 2, a semi-sandbox universe. As an operative in a doomed science-fiction universe, I was asked whether to keep information that might one day eliminate an intelligent, yet warlike, species of life. No, I said. That was someone else’s fight. Destroy the information. Later, I was asked to risk saving a hated enemy who had killed a friend, or take them out of play by eliminating half their population. I considered the character I’d been shaping in-game: emotionally torn by death, overburdened, and whose snap decisions were only based on morality when tactical advantage didn’t get in the way. Here, the universe was at stake – it was my fight. I was a hypocrite. Destroy the species.

As a writer, I adore this style of narrative – it gives me a chance to inhabit a character who thinks wholly different from me, but whose various paths are written by someone else. It allows me to entirely focus on a character’s psychological make-up, analyzing why he makes each decision.

Which brings me to The Witcher 3.

Take the over-the-shoulder perspective out and this has all the look and feel of a movie trailer. Compare it to Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s strong yet nonetheless generic trailers. Witcher has the character, sense of place, and feeling of consequence that Dragon Age lacks in its advertising. Compare it also with The Witcher 2‘s “Hope” trailer, which promised not a high fantasy experience, but rather a melancholy one, a rare tone in tales of swordplay and magic.

People who play games are more and more seeking out different, intelligent, artistic experiences. We want the medium to challenge us like film and literature can. The Witcher franchise, already unique for being a canon continuation of a series of best-selling Polish novels, demands decisions of players that are often ill-informed, manipulated by untrustworthy characters, and that are faced with siding alongside a variety of unappealing evils. By asking players to make judgment calls which could very well be wrong and repeatedly have unforeseen consequences, it forces players into situations of damage control, mourning, and some pretty honest vengeance.

That we’re given agency over the story itself to effect, avoid, or suffer a character’s feelings of melancholy, loss, and anger only makes the experience more poignant, more affecting, more vital as a piece of art. This style of narrative gives games the opportunity to speak to us in ways other mediums can’t. As for the Witcher 3, this trailer promises a dynamic story, beautiful locations, phenomenal music, but most of all…it hints once more at a rare combination of epic world and raw emotion. To look upon foreign, fantastical landscapes and react to them with the full scope of your emotional range is a truly compelling experience.

For other E3 reactions, I linked Eden’s and Forrest’s articles above. Also see:

Elizabeth Tobey walks us through the pros and cons of gameplay and cinematic trailers.

Vanessa Tottle reacts to Ubisoft’s treatment of female characters and highlights three games with female leads.

E3 Reactions — Elizabeth Tobey’s Top 3

The Division

by Elizabeth Tobey

For the first time in five years, I didn’t personally attend E3. While part of me was sad about missing out on such a usually huge event for me work-wise, the rest of me giggled with glee that I didn’t have to worry about trailers and appointments and booths and how I’m a germaphobe and detest shaking hundreds of hands.

Watching E3 purely as a spectator, with no proverbial horse in the game, was a breath of fresh air. It is, however, impossible for me to shed my (fairly cynical) perspective of the industry when I sit down to write about three trailers that stood out to me during the event. It’s so easy to critique negatively when you are sitting on the sidelines, but I know that every demo that went to E3 came with the baggage of long nights and perhaps some frantically couriered thumb drives with last-minute edits.

I’m going to start off by cheating a little bit and talk about the same game for my first two trailers. See, I have a problem with trailers that I can tell are fake: they either have gameplay I’m fairly certain was made just for the demo and therefore might never make it to the real game (so often it doesn’t) or somehow the dialogue is so forced and fake that I actually cringe when I hear it. Case in point is the gameplay trailer for The Division:

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud Ubisoft for showing off so much gameplay and I think it shows the game very well, but for god’s sake, people, gamers don’t talk like that to each other. When you are cooperating with your friend, you speak like a normal person and not in character. This doesn’t make me feel like I’m playing with my friends – it keeps making me realize this is a carefully scripted demo read by the devs to hit on the Key Marketing Initiatives for E3.

That being said, The Division absolutely nailed it with their cinematic trailer:

I don’t even really like cinematic trailers as representations of gameplay because – while they are great mood pieces and often artworks in their own right – they are CG, usually made by an outside agency, and so often the gritty mood of the piece (I’m looking at you, Dead Island cinematic trailer) does not carry in the slightest to the final game. That makes you even more disappointed in the end product than if you’d never seen the cinematic piece in the first place. But this trailer? I want to be a good guy (not the kind of good guy that when you think about it is actually a psychopath) and this trailer sells me on the desolation and the hope of the world they are creating.

Saving the best for last, The Crew continues to blow my fucking socks off. This year’s trailer, “Coast to Coast,” wins a special place in my heart not just because it used in-game footage that I felt was realistic and representative of the actual experience, but because it brought together the thrill of driving cars and made me absolutely giddy to do it online with my friends. The sheer scale of this game makes me want to play it right now thankyouverymuch – I have bought into everything this game promised and it’s a Day One purchase for me. The best part about me loving this trailer and game? I played it last PAX Prime and I was TERRIBLE at it. It was embarrassing. But that doesn’t matter. I need to play it, even if I’m the derpy pre-order Z4 that always gets smashed up, because that’s what friends are for and The Crew makes me believe that completely.

Elizabeth Tobey has been a Senior Manager of Interactive Marketing at Bioshock developer 2K and the Director of Global Communications at Defiance developer Trion Worlds. She is currently the Director of Marketing at Smule. You can read her thoughts on the gaming industry and other topics here.

E3 Reactions — Vanessa Tottle’s Top 3

Rise of the Tomb Raider

by Vanessa Tottle

When I was growing up, I had a lot of games. I think my parents gave me them because it kept me distracted and away from them for long periods of time. I loved the ones where I could play as women. Instead of watching someone else with perfect hair on a California sound stage kick the shit out of supernatural creatures, I could do it myself.

In Lara Croft, I found a woman who did everything the men did in action movies, but I got to shoot the guns, climb the ancient ruins, and drive the motorcycles myself. I do what I do now (paleontology) in part because I got to be a woman in short shorts and climbing shoes when I was just a kid who thought the world ended at the edges of my hazy town and couldn’t always be sure it would start again the next morning. Yes, Core Design expanded her tits in every sequel until Crystal Dynamics took over the series, but games were the one experience I had in having agency over anything, and Tomb Raider gave me the best games in which I had that agency as a woman. That opened up what I thought I could do in the world.

I have only been watching E3 for a few years, but Ubisoft blew the doors off this one like no other company before: their lineup included Assassin’s Creed Unity (AssU for short), Far Cry 4, The Division, Rainbow Six: Siege, The Crew, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Then they were asked why AssU and Far Cry 4 lacked playable women in the multiplayer. An innocent enough question. Ubisoft could have said female playables didn’t fit their vision or that they wanted to focus on some male-driven theme. Not perfect answers, but at least it would mean they had considered the possibility. Instead, they insisted animating female characters would have doubled their development time. Which is bullshit. Which their former animation lead came out and said was bullshit. Which, for a game being developed by nine studios, like AssU is, is especially bullshit.

So forget them. Why?

I’ve got an H.R. Giger Alien to face off against using only a motion sensor and a crème brulee torch. Alien: Isolation looks like everything I want in a horror game: dark and moody, a focus on sneaking around an overpowered opponent, survival against a constant threat instead of victory-by-shooting gallery. All set against a late 70s vision of our technological future and the vast emptiness of space. Its protagonist? Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen. Good thing, too. Like in Aliens, I don’t know that your average man with 20 guns could hack it. A woman with a blowtorch and a schematic? The Alien doesn’t stand a chance.

Why else? Because Faith is my Batman. The heroine of the first Mirror’s Edge returns in the second, which for a very long time looked like it wouldn’t get made. Faith slows down when she picks up a gun. It’s extra weight, and she has to use her hands to aim. In a first-person parkour game, that means death. She’s much better at navigating the architecture of a level to beat someone up, avoid combat altogether, or bypass conflict. Imagine playing a game that lets you be Jackie Chan. This is it.

And finally, Rise of the Tomb Raider. When Crystal Dynamics rebooted the franchise in 2013 with Tomb Raider, it kept the supernatural elements of the series and grounded everything else. When you fire a gun, it feels powerful. When you jam a pick into someone’s skull, it takes effort and feels revolting. It was more survival game than shooter or platformer. Lara’s world was no longer glamour and ritz, it was dirt and grime. She’s a woman who gets beat up by her opponents and her environment, but who gets back up again and again, always in the service of helping someone, discovering something new, or solving a mystery. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, you know why that speaks to me.

So go back to the 18th century, Ubisoft. The rest of us have fucking games to play.

Vanessa is getting her PhD in vertebrate paleontology, with a special focus in geochemistry. She has participated in digs on four different continents. Eat your heart our, Lara Croft. You can read more of her work here.

E3 Reactions – Forrest Walker’s Top 3

Zelda E3 2014

by Forrest Walker

It’s 2014 and Japanese video games are irrelevant. That’s the current byline, at least, and it seems to be increasingly true in a global sense. Consoles are dying in Japan, developers are going under, and even the once-mighty Capcom has scaled back to just a few retreads a year. Japanese publishers now fund western development houses, and Japanese developers are starting to worry that the hubbub about lack of innovation in Japan might just be true. It’s a strange time for the Japanese game industry, but not as strange as the trailers and announcements coming from the Far East this E3. What’s happening in Japan right now, and how much does it matter?

The biggest splash made by a Japanese trailer was probably a look into the new Zelda game for Wii U, a trailer consisting mostly of Eiji Aonuma of Nintendo sitting in a white room and talking about Legend of Zelda. More business proposal than trailer, this video sparked a thousand articles. The reason? The rock that is Nintendo changed the formula. Aonuma outlined the difficulty of making the world of Zelda feel open, expansive and free, something that Nintendo has struggled with since the onset of 3D graphics in Ocarina of Time. Now, that’s changed.

Whether hardware upgrades or simply in-house ethos is the primary factor, Link has jumped on board a train that’s been rolling through America for a decade: the sandbox. Zelda is now an open world, a place where a boy and his horse can run to the furthest mountain, meet bizarre creatures, and choose to do the water temple first…or last. Japan is tired of being left in the dust.

Hideo Kojima and Konami, on the other hand, are throwing their franchise into the dust face-first. Adding onto a previous trailer, E3 gave us a real look at the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. After a brutal, cinematic look at the often-agonizing world of Metal Gear, Punished Snake rides into the hills of Afghanistan to sneak and snipe his way toward his goals. After a long, strange decade of games since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Kojima has returned not only to the protagonist of that game, but to the fundamentals of what made it an aficionado’s choice. Phantom Pain seems to have it all: bizarre enemies; intricate faces; a confusing, dark story; meticulous historical detail; and infinite ways to confuse and murder your enemies.

In leaping into an open world sandbox, much like Zelda, another Japanese developer is taking something uniquely western in game design and using it to emphasize what’s unique about their franchise. In this case, the myriad of combat options in Metal Gear align with a vast possibility of transportation and destination. If you love the cinematic, intense world of Kojima, this game has the most exciting trailer of the season.

Of course, no talk about Japanese auteurs would be complete without bringing up the Andy Warhol of the video game universe. Goichi Suda, aka Suda51, and his Grasshopper Manufacture are at it again. Every year he releases another oddball entry into the world of pulp video games, a subsection of gaming he’s more or less invented himself. They’re not all good games, and they’re not all fun games, but they’re always bizarre, interesting, and worthy of critical analysis…despite usually appearing to be a vapid murder simulator.

Suda51’s Let It Die premiered at this E3, and the trailer featured more live action than gameplay footage. By all appearances, Suda51 is biting Bethesda’s Fallout style and is making some kind of a western RPG in which you try to murder each other brutally. It’s dark, gritty, and probably going right for the throat of western gaming culture, something Grasshopper Manufacture has seemingly declared a loving war on. For the other two examples, going western is a new, risky move. For Grasshopper, doing something they’ve never done before is just Thursday.

The new Battlefield, the new Halo game(s), Mass Effect 4, these are all bigger news in America. How relevant is Japan now? Not very, and that’s why these trailers are so important. Japan has been sliding for a decade, and the climb back up is long and treacherous. Nintendo and Konami have been reluctant to start that climb, but are finally, barely starting. Could this mark a change in the industry? An ascent of Japan? I don’t know and neither does anyone else, but at least Japan is willing to give it a shot, and that’s big news.

Forrest Walker is a native Texan who was raised on a steady diet of Sega consoles and Japanese RPGs. If he could only get good at an online game, he’d be all set.

E3 Reactions — Eden O’Nuallain’s Top 3

Ori art

by Eden O’Nuallain

What does the word “gamer” even mean anymore? It used to mean a teenage boy with acne ousted by social isolation into a windowless basement, like a cross between Steve Urkel and Buffalo Bill. Now, I ride the bus every day with a dozen people who are glued to their phones. In a strange reversal, experienced gamers are now the elitists who wouldn’t waste a minute, let alone days of their lives, on Candy Crush and Flappy Bird.

I don’t have the time I used to have to play Tomb Raider and Team Fortress. I like games that are like a cake now. Every little slice is a complete experience. Not being able to complete a level in one sitting isn’t a task in frustration. These are the games I can jump into and out of at a moment’s notice, but unlike Candy Crush and Flappy Bird, I can still enjoy a real story and experience progress beyond a level number. This means 2-D games. Art is at a premium in 2-D games, so they have to tell their stories very efficiently. I don’t believe they can get away with adding as much filler as first person games like Call of Duty do. Players would lose their patience too quickly. Stories are told via environments instead of narrators.

Inside is from PlayDead Games, the makers of Limbo, a deep, dark, depressing game that nonetheless incorporated the hilarious macabre of Edward Gorey. Their next game looks stern and powerful, but wacky and irreverent, too. Part Terry Gilliam and part Guillermo Del Toro perhaps?

Ori and the Blind Forest came out of nowhere, but after two minutes I know it’s an experience I must have. Sometimes these games can be like a chance to live inside moving artwork. I can just feel the breeze on my face, and I’ll dream of those flowers lighting up in the night.

My game of the show is Valiant Hearts: The Great War. 2-D platformers were pretty dead until the indie game boom revived the style a few years ago. 2-D engines were the only kind that were affordable. Smart developers like Epic Games and CryTek have followed suit: their latest 3-D engines are incredibly affordable. Both companies are taking their profits off a release’s back-end; they know it will result in a similarly much-needed injection of originality and increased appeal in first-person gaming.

2-D has become so mainstream again that Ubisoft, one of the biggest, baddest developers out there, has started designing indie-feeling platformers focused on individual visions and unique art styles. Valiant Hearts: The Great War has a retro-cutout, handcrafted style that gives it the innocent energy and excitement of a child’s diorama. Combine that with a story about war and lost friends and I wonder if games are going the route of superhero movies: previously childish things banished to the Buffalo Urkels of the world, but that artists are suddenly figuring out how to fold complex social commentary into on a massive, irresistible scale.

Eden O’Nuallain is a financial ghostwriter and freelance editor. Her script notes are as vicious as she is right about them. She encourages everyone to commemorate our new LGBT History Month by learning about your local organizations, sharing them online (you never know who’s reading), and volunteering some time with them.