Space Fleet: The Game!

Get ready to join your crew-mates on a wild journey through space. You and up to one teammate have duties on board the ship: a Captain to be appeased, an intergalactic war to be fought, and a treacherous navigation system to manage. But what if this journey and your captain are not what they seem? Welcome to Space Fleet: The Game, a deck-building card game remediating the experience of a member of the USS Callister spaceship crew. Within the game, you will discover more details about your role in space and your captain’s true intentions. Does your original goal to be the perfect and submissive crew-mate change? You used to feel so free on this ship, yet by learning more about your captain and the simulation he designed, you can’t help but want to escape. The question is: can you escape in time and avoid the perils of space?

We chose to remediate the Black Mirror season 4 episode 1 “USS Callister” into a card game because the television episode itself remediates a video game in a television show. As a group, we were particularly drawn to the episode because the players within the episode are playing a video game–so meta! So we are, likewise, remediating video game play in a television show through a card game. In the episode, twisted genius-boss Robert Daly artfully collects and harbors DNA from coworkers he feels wronged him, or who stand out to him for a particular reason. An exact AI copy of the individual is placed within a simulated universe on the “USS Callister”, under the brutal command of Captain Daly. The show harkens to Star Trek in its aesthetic and simulated premise, while using the meta-reality of Daly’s ego and misogyny to critique the dark side of geek culture and gaming.

Trailer for the Black Mirror episode

We made our best effort to emulate and recreate the immersive feeling of being stuck in a video game and trying to escape, just like the narrative depicted in the episode. To focus our remediation, we chose not to include the parallel office narrative to limit the game’s complexity. We also intentionally added the twist of the player not discovering that Daly is the “bad guy” until later in the game to surprise the player with this big change. We also chose this episode because it speaks directly to power imbalances related particularly to authority or control – themes inherent in play within a system of rules – as well as pertinent themes of gender, or toxic masculinity.

Our first game design goal to tackle in remediating “USS Callister” was representing a 180° change in the player’s goal halfway through our game. We chose to make a deck building game because  it compliments having a reversible goal and demonstrating change over time, as it allows for adjustments in character well-being and traits through the addition and removal of thematic cards in the player deck. Independent of all aspects of the game, we remediated the asteroid field with its own tracker so that its reversible function could be implemented later in the game for an interesting twist. The game completely flips on its head, and now instead of working to stay away from the asteroid field and fight the villain, you must work to fly through the asteroids (safely) to reach the black hole while escaping the evil clutches of Captain Daly. This mid-game twist is implemented to remediate the surprise the characters undergo as they enter the simulation and have to transition from helping Daly to subverting his control.

Game board design by Ashley Hemenway

As a co-operative game, the system faithfully represents the concerted effort the characters have to make to counter Daly’s egotistical simulation. Teamwork in the face of adversity also makes the players feel trapped together – a key aspect of the victims’ experience in the episode. Players begin with specific cards in their deck representing rudimentary skills and some weaknesses resulting from inexperience. Over the game, players must remove negative cards from their hand and add better cards to build a game winning composition of traits in their deck. In order for the players’ to survive Daly’s madness and the plights of space travel, they must work to improve both their deck composition while keeping up with the fight with Valdack, Captain Daly’s fickle mood, and navigation relative to the perilous asteroid field. The game’s event deck produced semi-random events according to the phase of the game, of which there are four. The events are dangerous, functioning as the “opponent” and causing players to divert attention to the three trackers that keep them from being defeated. This deck is also used to mark the game’s turning point or twist–when you realize you must head toward the asteroid field rather than away from it. The Daly’s mood track is especially evocative of the action in the show. Even as player’s learn Daly is a foe and not an ally, the game still forces them to keep him happy to avoid being thrown out of the ship and losing the game. Players must continue bringing Captain Daly his coffee order, celebrating Daly’s victories, and even kissing him to keep him happy while they subvert him behind the scenes. Balancing the representation of a misogynistic enemy through game mechanics in a prominent yet considerate manner took refinement and nuance in both the artist and the choice of thematic quotations on the bottom of each card.

During their turn, players have a wide range of strategic options. They can add skill cards to their deck, trash negative cards like injuries and confusion they have acquired, play skills from their hand, or draw a new hand of cards. In order to manually move the tracker, player’s can use “Effort”, but in doing so suffer a detriment to their character’s traits (their deck) in the form of a harmful “Exhaustion” card. Players choose 3 actions during each turn to keep the game balanced and exciting. When playing as a team, players decide in which order they each take their 3 actions so as to evenly distribute the cards between players. With these mechanical features to the game, the player experiences a semblance of control, but they are still beholden to the mercy of the game’s events, just like the crew members are in “USS Callister.” 

Game artwork by Helen Loda

A challenge we faced in designing the game was balancing game complexity and meaningful choices. The twist in the game is revealed after the first play through, but we still wanted the game to be fun to play multiple times. On top of this, we wanted someone who was playing through the first time to be able to understand all of the rules. While complexity makes the game more fun to play multiple times, it can make the first play through overwhelming and even discourage some from trying a game at all. We had to balance where to add meaningful choices to the game which add complexity, and where to streamline processes which were distracting from the core experience we sought to deliver. Some key decisions were adding a variety of new skills that can be added to give the game enjoyment over repeated plays, the semi-random nature of the event deck to retain surprise, and the ability to change the starting difficulty for veteran players seeking a heightened challenge. These are the final rules we decided on: Space Fleet: The Game Rule Book.

As far as design and aesthetics of the physical game are concerned, we decided to reflect the comic-book flair of the television episode alongside dramatic stills from the show itself. We used comic book fonts on the board, and we hand-drew the Space Fleet comic logo that was briefly shown in the episode. We also used an art style that added a more modern, digital finish for the cartoon crew, staying true to the outfits worn in the source material. After the card backs, crew, and board were drawn, stills were added to fill in other more minor images on the cards, such that the entire game would reflect the aesthetic of the setting in which it takes place.

Game board design by Ashley Hemenway

Our greatest challenge in creating the game was working together to create a tangible product when we couldn’t work together in person. For example, we had to figure out how to let one person create a board, another create card art, and another put the finished product together. The solution we decided on – shipping the board and doing digital art for the cards – meant that the board and cards were not together until later in the project. This meant that it was difficult to get footage of the game for a trailer until late in the process. Communication between seven group members, who ended up in different time zones for the final week of production, sometimes proved difficult as well. In distinguishing between real vs fiction elements of the experience, those group members creating the rules (real) were different than the ones creating the art (fiction). As all communication was done over zoom and text, clarification questions were frequently needed. We showed each other reference photos throughout the design process, and we reviewed the source material together beforehand. When designing the game, the story behind the rules was given high priority, but the actual implementation of aspects of the story through card art and board design were done by people even as the rules were being developed and finalized. In the end, we were able to communicate effectively over Zoom and text to collaborate on the game, but it was a significant challenge. We learned how to keep the theming of the game consistent with these communication challenges (Zoom, distance, time zones) in place — we were able to take all of our individual contributions to the game and make them highly cohesive to create a final product that visually captures the essence of the game and the episode’s shared themes. 

If this blog post was not enough to make you want to play Space Fleet: The Game, we hope this trailer will do the trick!

Our trailer for Space Fleet: The Game

Thanks for reading/watching,

Group 3: Maya Diaz, Stone Edwards, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman

Credits:

Trailer Production: Maya Diaz and Stone Edwards

Game Mechanics/Rules: Davis Glen Ellis and Dylan Kistler

Game Artwork: Helen Loda

Game Board Assembly: Ashley Hemenway

Card Assembly: Stone Edwards

Card Design: Dylan Kistler and Maya Diaz

Game Design Document: Maya Diaz, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman

STAND BY ME

A player and their companion in battle.

Despite games being an interactive and community creating medium, with multiplayer games dominating the industry, it is surprising to see that solo adventures are increasingly becoming more popular with their focus on storytelling and character development. Although these types of games hone in on the epic shouldering of a near impossible task by the main hero, they don’t always tell of a journey being taken alone.

Companions in games are NPCs (Non-player characters) who accompany the player through their multitude of quests. They serve to lighten the load, both literally and figuratively. In 2011’s Skyrim, companions you find and befriend along the way are able to literally lighten your load by a feature that allows them to have an inventory you can access. Within this inventory, you can store any item of your choosing, preventing your own character from being over-encumbered.

Lydia, one of your earliest companions, allows her inventory to be stored.

Figuratively, they lighten your load by fighting for you. Questing alone in Skyrim is a dangerous feat accomplished by only daring fans. Dungeon diving is one of the main ways quests force you to explore Skyrim, but are also one of the most unforgiving areas for novice players. Luckily, companions are readily available to give you a helping hand, with every companion having some sort of combat sense.

Although these are obvious positives for having companions while questing, there is another not so apparent from the get-go: emotional investment. In a virtual world so demanding, it sometimes feels like you have to carry the weight of the world all by yourself. With so much at stake, it becomes easy to compartmentalize your task and emotionally disconnect from the story. One of the only things anchoring you to this pseudo world is its characters, most notably the companions that accompany you.

In a lonely, single-player game, it is the bond you share with this company that makes missions/quests worthwhile. They begin to make you care about their world, what’s at stake and what is the morally right decision. Companions share their experiences with you, fully immersing you in their lives and the memories they’ve had in their past. It grounds you, allowing you to grow with these characters and closer feel what it means to be alive in their world. Their constant presence helps you understand the ramifications of your actions as their reactions to them reveal the morality of their world and what is commonplace.

In essence, they are quintessential chunks of the world they inhabit. Their desires and willingness to help you in your quest solidifies your stance in the relative conflict; what you do and whose side you’re on matters. By having a native of the land by your side, it becomes readily apparent that your decisions will have lasting consequences on the world they’ve known their whole lives.

Mental Health Stigma in Gaming

As you can probably assume from the title above, I’m a psychology major. While I don’t need to go into great detail for you guys today as to why I am a psych major, I do believe it is important to mention how fascinating it is that psychology can be relevant to many of our lived experiences. We know that things around us can affect the way we think, feel and process but our own mental state can also influence how we perceive and interact with information around us. 

One particular game that I first noticed a narrative structured around mental health was the popular horror game Outlast. The game follows the journalist Miles Upshur as he investigates Mount Massive Asylum in Colorado. The psychiatric hospital is overrun by homicidal patients that the game uses to create jump scares and creepy backdrops of the hospital’s dreary environment. Also, during gameplay, you can’t really see that well unless you use a flashlight or night-vision camcorder that depicts the space around you in a dark-green filter. It’s the epitome of haunted houses. 

Disclaimer: I have never actually played this game but you should watch the trailer. You might understand why I haven’t even dared to download it. However, I have watched my brother Whit play it a few times with his Oculus Rift (a VR headset). 

While watching Whit play the game, I noticed that he was presented with a ‘typical,’ horrific depiction of how mental health hospitals are displayed in popular media. Dimly lit hallways, general disarray as papers and syringes litter the floors, patients tied down to tables and chairs and evidence of not-so-ethical experiments meant to use patients as guinea pigs for a former Nazi ‘researcher.’ The depictions of the patients are even worse–they’re stereotypical monsters.

While Outlast is an extreme example in the gaming world, it nonetheless is a game that expands upon the stereotypes that used to surround mental health hospitals in the 1900s. Also, it exaggerates the stereotype of those with mental health issues being crazed, psychotic, deranged and terrifying. But this is so far removed from the truth of what mental illness is actually like. 

Here are some general facts on mental health before we continue:

1 in 5 Americans will suffer from mental illness at one point in their life

1 in 10 will develop a serious mental health condition

42 million Americans live with some form of an anxiety disorder (almost 20% of the adult population) 

60% of American adults with mental illness did not receive treatment in the past year for their mental illness 

As you can see from above, mental health conditions are pretty relevant in our country. With the pandemic, I can only imagine that these numbers have increased. The point of showing you these facts following my analysis of Outlast is to now highlight how the gaming industry has portrayed mental health. 

Mental health stigma isn’t just limited to games that depict stereotypical representations of mental health hospitals, it also extends to game characters. In the Sims games, an ‘insane’ character is one that has the attributes of dressing in “unsuitable or appropriate” clothing, rummaging “through neighbor’s trash cans,” “talk about conspiracies,” and “fish in swimming pools.” In other games, there are homicidal maniacs, one-dimensional characters created solely from mental illness symptoms like disorganized speech and paranoia in Cicero from Skyrim, and villainous psychiatrists as in Outlast. 

These characters provide nothing short of an incomplete, and more-than-likely erroneous over-exaggeration of well-known mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. However, they fail to show these characters in roles of ‘good’ or ‘neutral’ and instead portray characters with traits of mental illness as ‘bad’ or ‘comical.’ 

While there are some games out there like Life is Strange where mental illness is a part of the main characters’ experience but their illness is not used to portray them in a negative way. Instead, as in Life is Strange, it adds to the narrative of the game. This game particularly is a good example of how mental illness themes can be used in a video game without adding to the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. The developers even included links to resources for those looking for help with their own mental illnesses. 

As easy as it may be to build off of the negative stereotypes of mental illness for gameplay experiences, it is incredibly irresponsible of game creators to do so. Call me the PC (politically correct) police all you want, but being a psych major has shown me the harms of mental health stigma on those seeking help and suffering from these conditions. Game creators can and should do better in the future going forward, and that’s just my two cents on the matter. 

Emma Catharine Fennell

The Dark History Of Club Penguin (Post-Removal)

Ah, Club Penguin. The name itself brings joy to many who can reminisce about the days of their childhood spent gleefully clicking away within the brightly-colored penguin world.

The Town area of Club Penguin (Image courtesy of Club Penguin Rewritten Wiki).

This massively popular game came to its inevitable fall on March 29, 2017, when Disney finally pulled the plug on the site, citing a drop-off in the number of active users.

Interestingly enough, Club Penguin’s fall did not end its history there. The name Club Penguin today is associated with a much darker story owing to the online Flash game spinoffs created by people wishing to preserve the beloved game. They were (and still are!) run on private servers. The most notable examples include Club Penguin Rewritten, Club Penguin Online, and CPPS.to. For this story, we will concentrate mostly on Club Penguin Rewritten and Club Penguin Online.

Let me set the stage for you.

The Club Penguin Logo (Image courtesy to Club Penguin Wikipedia).

March 29, 2017 – the shutdown of Disney’s Club Penguin public servers.

March 30, 2017 – a new game by Disney called Club Penguin Island is released.

So you see one problem now. People were quite angry over this clear disregard towards the classic Club Penguin in favor of the shiny new successor, Club Penguin Island (which is nothing like the original Club Penguin except for the fact that it has colorful penguins. Seriously. It’s disgraceful).

Many people did not choose to play Club Penguin Island and instead flocked to the aforementioned private servers. There are many, but the most popular were Rewritten and Online. Disney, being the large company that it was, issued a few DMCAs against several of these private servers in the name of their copyrighted brand, Club Penguin, but most of the disputes were quickly settled with simple domain name changes.

January 21, 2018 – Club Penguin Rewritten suffers a massive data breach with 1.7 million users having their login data stolen.

It was discovered that this security breach was because of the use of an extremely simplistic encryption method by the Rewritten team. They used something called MD5 hashing, which is very accessible by even the most inexperienced hackers. This breach doesn’t seem like it’s particularly important, but consider the people who use the same login information for all of their personal accounts (I’m looking at you). Now, the hackers may have had access to all of their personal information, which could include bank accounts and more.

Rewritten came under fire for their lack of professionalism in protecting user data. It’s not entirely surprising, considering it had to operate under a non-profit designation to avoid DMCAs and was not run like a serious company; instead, much of its staff was relied on to be “good faith volunteers”. It certainly didn’t help that Rewritten was created by a group of teenagers with limited security and coding experience.

With the community’s faith in Rewritten shaken, some people turned towards other private servers. One of these is called Virtual Penguin.

The Virtual Penguin Logo (Image via @VirtualPenguin on Twitter).

What if I said that some smaller private Club Penguin servers were going out of their way to DDoS and hack other servers in an attempt to win in the face of competition? What if I said that this really happened by the owners of Virtual Penguin? Multiple scamming and hacking attempts proved successful, and later, screenshots were leaked of conversations of the Virtual Penguin owners talking about physically “destroying” the competition. Things were getting tense in the community.

The famed penguin dance – an international sign of peace (Gif from Tenor).

The Club Penguin world was absolute chaos behind the scenes, but the Virtual Penguin hacking scandal isn’t even the worst of it.

Someone who came under scrutiny all too late was a man named Riley, who sometimes operated under the alias ‘Anthony’. Riley was the owner of Club Penguin Online, a private server which competed closely with the highly popular Club Penguin Rewritten.

After months of allegations building up against Riley and several successful hacking attempts by Riley himself on his accusers, Riley was revealed to be a skilled manipulator, alleged predator, and an arrogant man who subjected many under-age female Online players to harassment and verbal abuse. Riley’s manipulation of children for sexual favors was documented on many instances on account of the victims and Riley’s staff.

The tension between Riley and his accusers was immense, and Riley’s attempts to silence his accusers was no longer persuading the community. However, the meltdown of the Club Penguin community was only just being noticed by a larger figure – Disney themselves.

The might of Disney comes swooping down to clean up the scene (Image from New York Daily News article).

On May 14, 2020, all private servers operating with the Club Penguin name were given DMCA take-down notices by Disney, warranting the prompt shutdowns for those unable to escape Mickey Mouse’s wrath. Additionally, a man associated with Online was reportedly arrested on suspicion of processing child pornography; it’s believed that this was Riley. Disney’s shutdown of the bootleg Club Penguin servers was cited under the banner of preserving child safety, and they expressed a firm stance against the “unauthorized uses of the Club Penguin game”.

So there you have it. An overview of the incredibly dark and complex history that followed the original Club Penguin’s fall in 2017. If you’re interested in learning more of the nitty-gritty of this expansive history, I highly encourage watching What Happened To Club Penguin? The End Of A Childhood Gem | TRO (ft. Internet Historian) by The Right Opinion on YouTube.

It’s crazy, right?

Who would’ve thought a game about penguins could cause all this mess?

Art, Asia, and a Dream Emulator

Allow me to pose this cliched question once again—Are games art?

Of course, it all comes down to how you define art, what aspect, or standard of art you are referring to. But one thing is true. Most games are not made to be “art”. They are franchises, made to earn great revenue for the gaming companies. But a man took the path not taken. Enters Osamu Sato, with the game LSD: Dream Emulator.

“It is not a game.” persists Osamu Sato almost contradictorily. (It is still considered a game by most people) He does not want his work to be associated with a genre given bad implications by opponents of gaming culture as “cheap fun”. “It is Sakuhin, a piece of art.” To what degree we agree with Sato might vary, however, everyone seems to reach a consensus—LSD: Dream Emulator is the strangest thing the public has ever seen.

There is not much gameplay in Sato’s creation. In LSD, you will find yourself in a variety of worlds—green, mountainous plains, ecstatic place with psychedelic patterns, Japanese villages, and an urban landscape full of violence. Bored of walking? Great. Bump into something (or fall into a well), and you will find yourself in another world.

To modern players, the game falls comfortably into the genre of “walking simulators”—except that it is not always a walking simulator. Sometimes you hop into a text dream consisted of a poem, offering similarly fantastical images as the wandering dreams. Other times, a video might appear with a solemn, somehow fear invoking, atmosphere.

All of these are randomly generated. There is not a certain narrative that goes through the entire game, except the pattern of dreams getting stranger and stranger, with texts, pictures, and weird shapes texturing physical surfaces (the walls and mountains) inside a wandering dream. There are videogames with little narrations, and videogames with little gameplay, but LSD: Dream Emulator lacks either of them.

So why does Osamu Sato make such a game? Who is he targeting?

Being a digital artist, electro musician, and photographer, it is natural for Osamu Sato to be in the very center of pop culture. He listened to electro music, Kraftwerk particularly, and was remarkably fond of avantgarde art, such as Constructivism and Dadaism.

Cover of Kraftwerk’s Album The Man Machine. Notice the Constructivist influence on its design.

Interested in Western culture, Sato went to the US as a young man, where he encountered quite a culture shock. To him, the Americans are very plain in talking. “If you can’t say what you want you’ll get cast by the wayside.” He also commented on the difference between Eastern and Western beliefs. While Occidental religions view a finality in death and afterlife, reincarnation and the life cycle play an important part in Oriental beliefs.

In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Sato said that his potential audience are progressive young people in the States, particularly those involved in the psychedelic movement, because there is the intertwining of “the psychedelic movement and PC culture”. But instead of trying to please this crowd with something familiar, Sato seems to be teaching the Americans a lesson about the East.

Keeping this in mind, all the quirks in LSD make sense. The lack of narration and gameplay is Sato’s way of preserving elusiveness. Here, we don’t distinguish mission and sidetrack. We don’t provide guides or directions. Exploring along, you would treat every mountain, every building, and every moving creature equally, and nothing should be cast aside. Equality is also shown in Sato’s handling of each media form. Don’t even talk about “cutscenes” being a waste of time! “Sink your teeth into it”, as Sato advises. Also, sit down and enjoy a poem, so you can actually daydream for a few seconds!

On a side note, even the opening movies of the game are made with equivalent effort and attention as the “real” gameplay. There are several alternative openings, and this is my favorite one, titled “In Lunacy, the Savage Dream”. I like how the juxtaposition and movement of camera integrate with the background music (Long Tall Eyelash, μ-ZIQ MIX) to bring the unsettledness, dirtiness, and vibrancy of a city. I am a city boy, so perhaps it is just all too relatable to me…

Sato projects Eastern beliefs in one of the only rules in the game, that bumping into an object leads you to another world. The “LSD Link”, as Sato put it, is the game’s way of reincarnating the player. There are “dangers” in the player’s wandering. You may be attacked and gobbled up by the lion, smashed by a colorful train, or shot down by a man in the violent city districts. But fear not! You would come to another world and begin your explorations again. Reincarnating through crashing the wall is Sato’s way of rebelling against traditional game logic. In most games, walls are barriers. They are the game developer’s way of saying, which do not even think about challenging my rules! But this is not the case in LSD. Worlds after worlds appear behind the walls. The walls are not a finality. If you crash into them, you will find a new place, a new opportunity.

Ultimately, the game is not just about presenting Eastern thought. It is intensely personal, inadvertently delving into Sato’s mind as he walks between cultures of East and West, traditions and avant-garde, old and the new. While Sato reflects upon his experience in a 1970s ~ 1980s Japan, it is applicable to many young people in booming cities that run between different tides of thoughts and influences, who—in fantastical dreams—struggle to find a unique balance,  an equality in mind, of their own.

-Alex Li

Notes:

Red Bull Music Academy’s interview with Sato. It is an important source for my blogpost.

Official Site of Osamu Sato. Have a look if you are interested.

Video Games Without the Video: The Narrative Imagination of Text-Based Games

Image from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Dark_Room

Beautiful state of the art CGI to color your world. Gone.
HD graphics to saturate the pixels of your screen. Gone.
What is left you might ask?
Some text, your attention, and a little imagination.


Throwing it all the way back to the rise of video games, text-based games have always blurred the line between reader and gamer. By using literary techniques like metaphorical language and rich imagery, text-based games make the player the simultaneous author, editor, and character in their own adventure. But where does the adventure take place if not entirely on the screen you might ask? Well in your mind of course.


I am going to examine two modern text-based games that solidify text-based games as the most thought-provoking video game genre to date. Lofty claim, I know but stick with me. By combining player freedom of choice with literary illusions and simplified graphics, Galatea and A Dark Room tap into vast worlds of imagination far richer than most video games. While these games may not have a huge fan base or collective nostalgia, they make you question your attention to detail and moral compass. Do statues have the right to be alive? How do you stop alien colonizers when you find out you are the alien?

Asking Galatea questions about her origins

Starting with Galatea, originally released in 2000 by creator Emily Short, this text-based game is an immersive adaptation of the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. As the unbeknownst player, you take on the role of a fine arts critic reviewing the beautiful statue of Galatea without knowing any background information about her artist or the unsettling party atmosphere ensuing around you. Limited to executing simple sensory tasks (listen, smell, touch, hug, attack) and asking Galatea information, you are left to your own devices. Galatea is a multi-linear narrative, forcing the player to parse out different endings that are reliant on the sequence of your choices. As the player, your literal and figurative character is on the line. The hidden object of the game? To converse with Galatea and convince her she is alive. The more you notice her breathing, admire her beauty, and acknowledge the pain she felt when being carved to life by Pygmalion, the more information she reveals to you. You must become her friend and she must become your equal. This game forces the player to use their imagination to take on different roles and strategize their way towards more information. Do not want to play pretend with Galatea? She will die (turn back into stone) and you may meet the dangerous gaze of Aphrodite.

Moving onto A Dark Room, this game pushes the limits of interactive text-based graphics and dystopian narrative arcs. As a player, you find yourself in a dark room (all pun intended) as you must enact basic survival skills like lighting a fire and hunting to survive. Once, you complete the bare minimum of gathering firewood, hunting, stoking the fire and building huts you begin to have strange people from the woods join your makeshift camp. Quintessential colony life, your camp becomes a village where you can build a smokehouse and a trading post. You have full control over the people who join camp and their jobs while they live in camp. But all the while, you must continue to stoke the fire. Your workers suddenly turn into slaves without you knowing. And once you gain enough materials, you can begin to explore the strange forest beyond your home. At the end, you must dodge falling keyboard symbols as the screen fades to black and your starship takes off into the abyss of space. You are an alien colonizer. That was the one game element beyond your control. A Dark Room immerses the player in a world of limited information and limitless game options. The game capitalizes on player curiosity to lure you into the downward spiral of your moral compass. Similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, the player becomes aware of the world around them the longer they stoke the light of the fire. The truth is in the world beyond if you dare to find it.

Both Galatea and A Dark Room stoke the fires of your imagination through descriptive narratives and intricate interactions of the butterfly effect. To me, text-based games create a world of infinite possibility because they place the player in the pilot’s seat of creativity. You become the curator of your own visual landscape. How can a pixelated screen compare to your imagination anyways?

Looking to play these games for free?

Galatea

A Dark Room: Note this game is best played when on Apple products (available on Apple App Store)

Discovering Identity Through Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game that has been a staple of the gaming and nerd world since 1974. Although the most played version of the game is the fifth edition, the ability to create characters and worlds has remained constrained by only the imagination of the players. Despite the rules that act as a framework for adventures and campaigns, the core of the game are the players themselves. One acts as a Game Master/Dungeon Master, writing or running a pre-made campaign, roleplaying NPCs and enemies while the other players form a group called a party, each creating their own characters that grow with them as they play.

Player's Handbook (Dungeons & Dragons): Wizards RPG Team: 9780786965601:  Amazon.com: Books

Characters on the surface level are made up of a class, race, and background. While a stereotypical character may be the orphaned human thief or an old, powerful, elven wizard, characterization can go a lot deeper and reveal things about yourself that you might not have known beforehand. Despite the characters not being you, I personally have a little bit of myself in my characters and even when they differ from me a lot, they serve as a chance to see the world from a new perspective.

Being a game with limitless opportunity and options, as well as a safe space to explore identities and live through a fantasy world, Dungeons & Dragons has become a stable of the intersection between the LGBTQIA+ and tabletop game communities. There are many articles online where you can see primary accounts of playing as a different gender or exploring sexuality through your character that have helped the players themselves gain clarity.

Take my character Catal’yst Nodelar, for example. On the surface, he is a high elf alchemist that came from a noble family but had to flee with his sister to survive. But much deeper than that, he has also felt alone and inferior to his twin sister his whole life, due to the matriarchal nature of his nobility. Through this lens, I tackled issues of privilege and disparity within the party members and even his sister, played by my friend.

Catal’yst gets frustrated when something doesn’t go to plan, someone belittles him, lies, or is just simply stupid. I hold my own older sister on a high pedestal and tend to care more about my friends than myself which is expressed in his own personality and actions. I also am the youngest in my family and feel overshadowed by my sister which has made we work hard to prove myself as he has done in his own world. Despite his abilities or skill, he will always feel like the ignored child that wasn’t worthy of his parents’ attention and that is afraid to leave his sister’s side for the first time in his life.

A portrait I drew of my D&D character, Catal’yst Nodelar.

In addition, Catal’yst is the character that looks the most like me. Having a high elf, usually expected to have pale, almost translucent skin, be black, in of itself, goes against the norm of Tolkien ideas of race and served as a mechanism in which I could affirm my own racial identity. He and his sister also often face discrimination in this vein, adding to the self-doubt and internalized racism that makes his character so fleshed out.

While I came out as gay before I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, Catal’yst as a character let me subconsciously toy with the idea of asexuality and the nuance that is sexual orientation. This eventually led to my revelation and comfort around being homoromantic and on the asexuality spectrum without a need to use a specific label. Reflecting on my character’s actions had real-world positive effects on my and led to catharsis for players around the world.

Rainbow Dice photo by battlecrazed-axe-mage on Tumblr.

Catal’yst, as well as my other characters, has his own set of wishes, personality quirks, doubts, fears, and while he’s not a real person he has the depth to be one. While I like creating fantasy characters with realistic and human emotions, obstacles, and problems as a character study of the human condition, others live for the opposite: using Dungeons & Dragons to escape the harsh realities of the world. Whether that means being able to express yourself through your character without feeling endangered or just having a break from the chaos and violence of our own world, this game serves as a door to a world of experiences.

If you have not yet, I suggest you grab a few friends and try to play D&D. While everyone doesn’t have a sexual awakening or live out their suppressed gender identity, you can learn a lot about yourself and your friends based on the characters they play and actions they partake in. One of the most important aspects of the game is that you create it which means that it doesn’t even have to be a fantasy world, it can have a murder mystery, or maybe you just want to fight a lot. These options will ultimately lead to a good time, especially during these “unprecedented times” that are so often talked about.

-NerdyHerb

Here’s an article I read in the past that helped inspire this blog post: https://nerdist.com/article/finding-queer-identities-dungeons-and-dragons/

Video Games: Making Fools of Us All

A video game’s first job is to fool its players. We have talked at length about how games have their rules and procedures for players to follow. What we have not discussed is how these rules can differ completely from our reality, yet we are made to believe these rules are real and important. In my fiction writing class we learned the same thing, just in a different medium: the more a fiction deviates from reality, the more novel truths the creator must convince their audience to accept. A world unique from ours still needs to be a sensible one. If the creators fail to make us believe in their world, the game fails, but if it succeeds…well, we as players get to enjoy a whole new reality.

Few games have been as exemplary of this as Thomas Was Alone. Upon starting, the rules of this world are simple: you are a red rectangle by the name of Thomas, moving up and to the right to reach the next level. That is the core game structure; you take control of various rectangles and get them from one side of the screen to the other, dodging obstacles along the way. This world is easy enough to accept, but the creator, Mike Bithell, throws in an extra rule: these rectangles are self-aware with their own personalities.

Thomas Was Alone Trailer

On the surface, these rectangles differ by no more than their color, shape, and jumping ability, but through these differences the creator spins a story in which these attributes shape how the characters interact with the world and each other. In this long journey from one side of the screen to the other, they learn what makes them unique, what their life purpose is, and even how to love one another. Yes, that’s right. One of Bithell’s rules is that these rectangles can fall in love, thus we see a short, cynical square named Chris fall deeply in love with the thin, horizontal Laura who lets him jump higher than ever.

Chris (bottom left) and Laura (upper right) getting ever closer

The craziest thing about this? It works! Bithell convinces us that rectangles are ready and willing to take on these human attributes through brilliant storytelling and character development. Of course, this could have all been much easier with humans, or maybe even some talking animals, anthropomorphizing familiar objects to bring the rules that much closer to reality, but no. In this world we are taught to invest in and empathize with shapes.

Claire (bottom) saving John (left) and Thomas (right) in proper superhero fashion

Now why does it matter that we believe in rectangles that eventually sacrifice themselves to offer others their freedom? Bithell had a perfectly fine game full of problem-solving and coordination, so why don’t the rules stop there? To answer my own question with another, what’s the point of moving a rectangle across a screen? This is not Tetris or Mahjong, other rectangle-based games with high scores as the goal. In fact, there is no quantitative value for actions beyond making it to the next level (and collecting the occasional floating square for an achievement). The value lies within the story. With each level, you learn a little more about the world you are jumping around in, and the partners you are jumping around with. If Bithell failed to make you believe there is value in this, you likely would not be playing.

By tricking us into believing that this two-dimensional world is one with a rich history and dynamic characters, Bithell leaves you with values to bring back into this mundane world. He teaches you what it means to be a friend. He teaches you the value in serving a higher purpose. And more relevant than ever, he teaches you that we are never truly alone. With lessons like these, who cares that you had to be tricked to learn them?

The Last of Us: Pushing the boundary between cinema and video games

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WARNING!!! This post contains heavy spoilers for Last of Us part 1 and 2…

I recommend watching all of the clips in this blog post to get a better sense of what I am discussing, but they do include a heavy use of language and violence which might disturb some people.

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WOW! The Last of Us has to be one of the most remarkable game series I have ever played. With the release of The Last of Us Part II this year, my mind was absolutely blown. This series redefined the line that separates a game from a movie. Now I know that’s a very bold statement to make, so here is some background for those of you who don’t know the game:

The Last of Us was released in 2013 by the video game developers Naughty Dog who were previously known for their games Uncharted and Jax, which told these grandiose stories of adventure. The Last of Us follows Joel, a father from Texas who is impacted along with the rest of the world by an outbreak of a virus that turns people into these zombie-like creatures called “infected.” The opening is this devastating scene where we see Joel trying to escape with his daughter, who is fatally shot by a soldier who is given orders to shoot them since they might be infected. This heartbreaking scene ends, and the title card cues just like a movie. Already with this 20-minute long opening scene, the player is shown something that was so unique and never seen before in a video game. The graphics are beautiful, the music is powerful, and the emotions and despair in these characters can be felt by the player.

A screenshot taken in a cutscene from the first game

The whole game plays like a movie, and throughout, the player witnesses more moving moments as the characters develop and change along the seasons (separates the four acts of the story). There is a lot to the plot, so I obviously can’t talk about all of it, but the main idea is that Joel is sent to deliver this girl (Ellie), who might be a possible cure to the virus to the fireflies (a group trying to find a cure) who are stationed across the country in Salt Lake City. Joel and Ellie begin to bond as the seasons change, and Joel begins to see Ellie as the daughter he lost. Then after many heartbreaking and heartwarming events, the game reaches its final scene.

This is the last act of the first game in the series

This last scene left players with so many emotions and wanting MORE. The Last of Us instantly became critically acclaimed, won multiple Game of the Year awards, became one of the best-selling video games of all time, AND is often referred to as one of the greatest video games ever made… Now that’s a lot…

I mainly have not talked about gameplay so far in this post, and that’s because this game is unique in that I don’t think the gameplay is as essential or revolutionary (still an exceptional achievement in the game) in the effect that the game leaves on the player. This leads me to the primary point of this blog.

The Last of Us plays like a movie, which is what makes the game so powerful to watch and play. This game redefined what it means to be a video game and moved past the importance of gameplay and focuses primarily on the artwork, cinematography, voice acting, and everything else, which makes a movie come together. This game alone introduced a whole new genre of games that goes beyond the typical gameplay formats and focuses mainly on the story and cinematic experiences. Since the release of The Last of Us, many games have followed this design and you even have games like God of War (2018) which changed genres and follows The Last of Us’ storytelling format. All of this has further pushed the question of when does a video game become analogous to a movie.

Then along came The Last of Us Part II…

With a least six years in the making and a budget of around 100 million dollars, The Last of Us Part II pushes this boundary to the next level.

To get an idea of this budget and the team that went into making this game a reality, it cost as much to make movies like 1917, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Deadpool 2. Like 1918 and The Wolf of Wall Street, which grossed over 300 million dollars in their box office runs, The Last of Us Part II broke records of being the fasting selling PS4 exclusive by selling over 4 million copies in its first week. Assuming that every copy was a standard edition game valued at 60 dollars (which is inaccurate since there are limited editions ranging up to 300 dollars), the game made over 240,000,000 million dollars in its first week of launch.

Aside from the numbers, every scene in this game is beautifully crafted and brought to life with the intricate level of detail in the artwork, character expression, and the soundtrack. The landscapes and cinematography displayed in this game rival films and even surpass them knowing that it is all digitally created through lines of code. On top of that, the story is this harrowing and captivating tale of revenge and retribution where, as the player, you question every decision you are forced to make as your character until, at the end, you are left with nothing. These dark and gritty moments are contrasted with relaxing scenes that give you a sense of ease until being thrown back into a ruthless, unforgiving world.

A scene in the game where Ellie plays an acoustic rendition of “Take on Me”

Unfortunately, I can’t write out the entire plot the the game since it is over 20 hours of content, but here is the last scene to get a better understanding of the story and meaning that this game paints for the audience.

Gameplay and cutscenes from the last act in the second game

Even without any context of the game, this final scene alone shows the emotions and struggles that the characters face. It also demonstrates the game’s wide range of locations and scenery, just like a movie. With all of these components that have now been laid out, what makes this game different than a movie? In my opinion, nothing. Of course, it is a little different since the story is over 20 hours long and still follows most game designs in that you interact and move the character outside of cutscenes. Other than this, The Last of Us Part I and Part II are no different than a movie you would see in theaters. Both forms of media lay out masterfully crafted stories with real life applications, character development that allows the audience to empathize for the fate of these characters, and cinematography that paints these magnificent portraits that place us in the world that the story revolves around.

Just as The Last of Us Part I was a perfect ending to the PS3, The Last of Us Part II is the perfect end to the generation of the PS4. These games have opened up the doors for future games to choose to transcend the traditional format of quests/missions and instead become a complement to the art of films.

13 Sentinels: A Love Letter to Science Fiction

Around mid-September, a friend messaged me asking if I knew anything about a video game that was trending on Twitter.  I opened the app myself to find that a small studio’s latest PS4 release was not only getting rave reviews, but that industry giants such as Super Smash Bros’ Masahiro Sakurai and Nier: Automata’s Yoko Taro had gone out of the way to praise the game.

Vanillaware’s 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is a hard game to describe.  Not only does its mix and match video game genres, but it also drops you right into a complex mystery with the objective of spending the next 30-40 hours untangling it.  Most of the fun comes from discovering different elements on your own, so if you are sensitive to spoilers, I suggest you stop reading this blog post right now and consider playing the game yourself.  However, because I understand how hard it is to trust a recommendation of literally, “just play it yourself, dude,” I’ll do my best to sum up the appeal of the game without revealing too many secrets.

One of the first things you see when you boot up the game: the title screen. If you don’t want any more info than this, turn back now.

13 Sentinels is best summarized as a love letter to pulp science fiction.  Every subject you can think of—giant robots, time-travel, clones, AI—is included with childlike enthusiasm.  The writers clearly adore the genre and delight in paying homage to as many classics as they can.  However, despite these nods to past works, 13 Sentinels still manages to forge its own unique identity.

One of the ways this is most evident is through how the game is structured.  After a prologue introduces you to a few storylines, the game gets divided into three sections: Remembrance, Destruction, and Analysis.  Remembrance is where most of the narrative takes place.  You choose a protagonist to follow and then play as them, exploring their environment and talking to others to gather more information.  Destruction meanwhile leans more heavily into its real-time strategy elements.  You divide the protagonists up into teams and defend important defensive points from waves of enemies for up to two minutes.  Then in Analysis, all the events of the game are organized into one big timeline and you can unlock additional informational files on different characters and plot elements.

Remembrance Mode: before you select which character you want to follow, you can check to see how much of their story you’ve seen.

If you’re confused over which part is the “main game,” that’s the point.  While there are some checkpoints to keep the truly endgame spoilers away from newcomers, 13 Sentinels gives the player the choice and agency to pace the game however they want.  There really is no one right or intended way to play the game: exploring not only different locations, but concepts and mysteries is where the fun comes in.  For much of the game, you’re given more questions than answers.  And while eventually the story manages to resolve itself, 13 Sentinels gives you the chance to put together many plot points ahead of time if you’re an observant player.  While many of its characters are charming and likeable, much of my enjoyment came from those “aha!” moments I got when I finally figured out one piece of the plot.

Destruction Mode: surprisingly all the explosions and flashing lights are easier to process than some of the plot twists this game will throw at you.

It can be an overwhelming experience, but eventually a set of themes began to emerge.  Fitting for its nonlinear nature, you slowly gain a sense of time as cyclical.  The same problems return again and again, and humanity continues to focus more on their own personal drama while disaster looms over the horizon.  It would be easy for the game to fall into cynicism with its teenage love triangles and revenge plots, yet ultimately it still finds a hopeful ending.  While there are parts of the game that fall flat for sure, I’ll leave other reviews to cover those.  This probably won’t be a game for everyone, but the fact something as ambitious as this even exists is enough for me to get caught up in its infectious excitement.

– Amanda