Monthly Archives: January 2012

Level Up – Episode 6: Episode 1?

Aaaand we’re back! It’s been a while, but we’ve finally gotten our collective shit together and just in time. There’s sooo much to talk about. I don’t even know how we managed to cover everyth—what’s that? It’s just press releases? Oh, um…

I guess we can bide our time with Fingle and Hero Academy on our iOS devices, Resident Evil 6 trailers in our eyes, and yearning in our, uh, hearts. I mean, we might even talk about the Wii U and the new Neo Geo! Who knows!

Download the mp3

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A Puzzlejuice Reduction Over an iOS Confit

When it comes to video games, it’s easy to be reductive, especially if you’re describing a game to someone. It usually comes down to asking questions: have you played Donkey Kong? Did you ever try Yoshi’s Cookie? How about Advance Wars?

Sometimes this can be helpful; reducing games to genre tropes can inform you of mechanics before you even start playing. In shooters, it’s useful to assume that headshots are choice, and that in fighters, blocking is preferred to just soaking up damage like a sponge that doesn’t know how to block.

In the case of Puzzlejuice, a new iOS puzzle game, it can be reduced to these questions: have you played Tetris? Did you ever try Bejeweled? How about Boggle?

It looks pretty much like Tetris at first glance as various Tetrimino-ish blocks slowly/manically fall down the screen and stack along the bottom. However, instead of clearing out once you form a row, the individual segments of each block becomes a letter, a transformation you can also achieve by tapping groups of three or more similarly colored squares. To actually clear out portions of your screen (and your mounting insanity), you drag your finger across the letters to form words with longer ones being worth more points and more clearance space.

So it’s part Tetris, part Bejeweled, and part Boggle. Sounds pretty bland, huh? That’s just how it is, though, when you reduce a game to its base elements. After all, what is Zelda besides whacking dudes and opening chests?

In the case of Puzzlejuice, you’re doing the game and yourself a great disservice. There are some nice additions to what you already know like powerups, slick music, and leveling objectives that remind me a great deal of Jetpack Joyride (there I go being reductive again).

The best thing, though, that you can say about the holistic result that is Puzzlejuice is that it’s stressful. It’s frenetic, it’s taxing, and it’s fun. You’re never fully in control. In my mind, it’s like riding in a Radio Flyer wagon that’s being hauled by a belligerently drunk flock of ostriches down the steep and windy streets of San Francisco, which is to say you’ve got just enough agency over the situation to avoid hitting lamp posts and trash cans, but there’s no way this will end well.

You’re constantly trying to find the most opportune place for falling, rotating blocks that offer you one to four seconds to analyze your available letters and colors for new words (and thus further life) and color matches. Every new block is just resetting the doomsday clock, and the only way to stave off destruction is to create the longest word possible from a jumbled mishmash of letters. My first game took place over the course of two days just because I had to keep pausing to keep myself from crying and get a chance to reconstitute my brain back into a solid from the melted, lumpy puddle it had become.

There are, of course, problems. They’re not necessarily faults of the game, but, intrinsic to the platform or not, they’re still problems. For instance, dragging diagonally between letters is less than ideal, as is the occasional confusion in communicating intent from your mind to your hand to the touchscreen to the game when you want to make a word but you instead drag a block all the way to the side and create an irreparable and monolithic tower of stupidity and anxiety.

However, I simply can’t say enough about how engrossing I found Puzzlejuice. At this very moment, I both desire to keep playing and fear how much time, health, and mental stability it will cost me, but that might just be me reducing a fantastic puzzle game to a set of consequences.

See you on the other side.

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Sandwiches and Video Games: Being a Coddled Gamer

Listen, I know how to make a sandwich. When you see me with some bread, choice deli meats, and delicious cheeses, there will be no doubt in your mind that I know what I’m doing. The urge to say “hey, looks like you could use some help” never crosses your mind because 1) I’m fucking slaying this sandwich-making business and 2) stop looking at my lunch. It’s such a simple task that finding someone unfamiliar with the concept is akin to finding someone afflicted with smallpox.

So why do video games assume that I can’t make a sandwich?

There used to be a time when video games were slightly abusive. They actually follow a similar trend in regards to the sanitization and pacification of society in general, but that is a discussion that will have to take place at another time and place.

I’m not saying they were sadistic in any way but rather that the way you learned how to do things was by trying and failing and eventually succeeding. Hand-holding and explicit “go here and press this button after you go here and flip this switch” instructions were a rarity, and—if the game was well designed—no one missed them! Did anyone ever have to tell you how to make a sandwich? Did anyone have to tell you that the peanut butter and jelly went between the bread? I didn’t think so.

This is an oversimplification, but consider Super Mario Bros. level 1-1. There is no voiceover or text that tells you to go right and jump on the Goomba. There is a Goomba in the way, and you know there is a way past it. Either through experimentation with button-mashing or experience with other games, you figure out you can jump over or on top of it. And notice the proximity of the first block? It’s positioned just so that while you’re nailing the timing of your first kill, an errant leap or two will lead to the discovery that you can bump blocks for goodies. Simply through playing the game, you learn a great deal many things that you didn’t know before and didn’t require the game to tell you through flavorless exposition, and never does the game say “don’t forget to jump over the bad guys!”

Of course, game mechanics were simpler back then, but even video game control staples such as using the right analog stick to look around are still being hammered into your brain in the most pedantic of ways.

Take, for instance, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. There are puzzle sequences, climbing sections, and firefights. For most gamers, two of those parts are likely to be the standout facets of the Uncharted gem while the puzzles are left to be considered as slog. It seems that the developers know this since every time you come across a puzzle, the SELECT button icon comes up, reminding you to check Drake’s journal.

Or at least, that’s what I hope is the reason. The alternative is that they think you’re an idiot.

After the first puzzle, it’s safe to assume that you can remember that one of the 14 buttons on the controller is wholly dedicated to a third of the entire game. Instead, in an effort to quell the outcries of injustice from us simpletons, as soon you start a puzzle, before you even begin implementing your first posited solution, up comes a prompt that says “HEY DUM-DUM, PRESS SELECT TO SOLVE THIS PUZZLE.”

Don’t take this all the wrong way; I’m not categorically admonishing the notion of in-game tutorials. They’re a fine replacement for the atrophying state of game manuals (which I find absolutely horrifying. I used to read those things just for fun). I mean, just because I know how to mix cereal and milk doesn’t mean I know how to turn a dozen or so chainsaws into a mobile death engine. Teach me! Then I’ll know. Just don’t treat me like a fool.

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An Open Letter To Nintendo Re: The Binding of Isaac

Hey, Nintendo. How’ve you been? I hear the 3DS is selling better. That’s cool. Good for you.

I don’t expect this letter will mean much. You’ve proven that people need to shout at you with a megaphone, en masse, in order for you to listen to them. Regardless, there’s something I need to say.

You need to approve The Binding of Isaac for the 3DS eShop. Seriously, if this ball is in your court, then you need to make a play, and do it without running around in circles for months to a year. Honestly, you should be the ones approaching great independent developers about making downloadable games for the 3DS and Wii U, and you certainly shouldn’t turn down those who already want to appear on these systems.

Quality indie content like The Binding of Isaac can only help your platform. Over the past month or so, the eShop has seen some huge releases in the forms of Pushmo, Mighty Switch Force and VVVVVV. These games have made the eShop (which still has its own host of problems) a worthwhile place to hunt for new game experiences.  Keep the train rolling. VVVVVV in particular was a great addition because it’s an indie darling already, and there was an established userbase anxious to try the game in glasses-free 3D. The Binding of Isaac will draw a similar (and perhaps bigger) crowd, I assure you.

Of course, one of the main reasons we’re even worrying about the fate of Isaac on the 3DS is the religious elements, which Nintendo has been known to shy away from in the past. The Binding of Isaac was made by an atheist, yet a Biblical story as the basis for a violent and in many ways disturbing video game. There are plenty of Christians that would take issue with it, sure. They will probably take a quick glance at its intro movie and scoff at the way it portrays crazy Christians.

But I’m a Christian, and I think The Binding of Isaac is a great game. Not only that, I actually think it a worthwhile message. I’ve finished the Steam version three times so far, and I plan on going back for more. You know what would make it easier to go back for more? If it were on my 3DS, in my pocket wherever I go.

I’m not alone as a Christian that finds the game intriguing at the very least. Christ and Pop Culture put it on their Favorite Games of 2011 list. One of the site’s editors, Drew Dixon (also a pastor), had good things to say about it in his review for Paste. But there’s more to it than that.

It’s not that The Binding of Isaac doesn’t sometimes make me uncomfortable – because it does. Both as a Christian and as a human being that hurts deeply for victims of child abuse, Isaac’s world and story can be unsettling. But for games to be taken seriously as an art form, we need to be made uncomfortable sometimes. For you to be taken seriously by hardcore gamers and indie developers again, Nintendo, you need to let them create the experiences they need to create.

I can understand when you enforce limits on sex, nudity, whatever. You put families first, that’s fine. I get it. But let the developers thrive. Let them create experiences that push us a little. Let them appeal to more mature audiences. Let them share sales data, for goodness’ sake. Embrace them. And more than that, promote them. Grab a 3DS port of The Binding of Isaac and boast about it. Let the world know that this experience is available on your platform.

I love my 3DS, especially now that more quality games have started to arrive on the platform. But the more good games, the better. I want to play The Binding of Isaac on the go. Please let it happen.

Follow Britton Peele on Twitter.

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The Second Quest

Like a phoenix from the ashes, like Bowser and his stupid Koopalings, like Ron Paul in every election for the past 250 years, we have returned.

Tim Poon and I (you know, Britton Peele. Do try to keep up) maintained this blog in our spare time during college, when we weren’t writing for The Daily Toreador. When Tim graduated it fell into disuse. When I graduated it was lost in the forgotten annals of history.

The Experience Points blog is dead. But we’ve come back to start a New Game Plus.

Now, we’re both freelancers, when we can find people to pay us to write things. Trouble is, that’s not always an easy task, especially as great outlets like GamePro fall to the enemy that is gaming illiteracy. So part of the reason we decided to come back to this blog was so we would have a dumping ground for those thoughts and ideas that couldn’t find a home somewhere else. But mostly we came back because it was a lot of fun. We missed doing podcasts and chatting about how short Wanted: Weapons of Fate was or how much I love Monkey Island. I also missed that big, poofy hair of Tim’s.

We’re not 100 percent positive what will go here, only that it probably won’t be typical stuff like reviews. We do that sort of thing elsewhere now, and we have other things we want to try. We’ll definitely do some more podcasts soon, and we’re talking about doing some video content, because this new start-up site YouTube really caught our attention recently.

If you’re just joining us, check our bios on the About Us page to see why you should care (because you should). If you give us a chance, we promise not to steal all your Skyrim discs and replace them with copies of Sneak King while you sleep.