Wednesday, October 31, 2012

PAYOLA!  


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Book: Although I haven't talked much about my upcoming book Speaking in Forked Tongues, expect that to change fairly soon. I just sent a completed, revised draft to my publisher for editing, so it's one step closer to being a readable thing out for sale. 

Not much more to report at the moment, but I'll be posting updates on this as they happen.

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Games: I was listening to a podcast recently (and I've heard this same thing multiple times from other people over the last week or so) and I was shaking my head at the way the speakers were discussing recent Events Which Shall Not Be Named. Over and over, they were so insistent that reviewers are "getting paid off" for good scores.

Look, I'm not denying that there are pressures on writers and websites out there -- it's pretty clear that certain outlets need ad revenue to survive, and smaller sites often rely on review copies of games in order to be able to provide timely coverage. When bad scores are awarded to certain games, there's always a risk that advertising will be discontinued (read: income lost) or someone will be removed from a distribution list (read: no advance or free copies).


The simple fact is that anyone who writes about games today is at the mercy of the people who publish them, and their PR representatives. It's not like a reviewer can go around uncovering some early dirt on an upcoming title unless someone connected with its production gives access. Under such circumstances, it's just a reality that everyone involved in games writing (publishers, PR, websites, writers) has one form of tension or another with everyone else.

A brief outline: Publishers want good scores for their games in order to promote sales. PR people want to give free copies and swag to outlets which will be favorable, or at least fair. Websites want readers in order to generate revenue, and they need coverage of whatever’s in demand that day. Writers want to earn a living and have their work seen, so they need to write about what's hot.

This all forms an easily-understood web of interconnectedness which definitely has implications on various degrees of honesty and/or agendas, and I'm sure I could write another thousand words on that. However, that's not my point at the moment.  No, the reason I bring all this up is that I think the common misconception of reviewers being bought off outright needs to be put to bed, permanently.

Although I'm certainly not omniscient (hello, @failnaut!) I’ve been writing reviews and been in the game sphere for around twelve years. During that time I've never personally heard of or been approached by any developer, publisher, or PR person and been propositioned with anything in return for a good score. In fact, my experience has been just the opposite -- I've had PR people go out of their way to say that they don't expect any certain number, just that I should be fair, and nothing else.


Of course, I'm not saying that everyone in the games industry is innocent. If someone receives some cool stuff and has great drinks on the tab of a publisher, it's realistic to think that person might be a little more favorable towards their game when it comes out. If someone depends on the revenue from their site to pay their writers (and to feed their family, too) then I think it's possible that a tough viewpoint might be softened in order to maintain a good relationship with the people who pay the bills.

Sometimes this sort of bias comes in another way -- it can sometimes be difficult to be brutal about a game that might deserve it when you know the people who made it on a personal level. Speaking about this last example, I've had to recuse myself from a few reviews over the years because I felt I was too friendly with the developers. Honestly, after spending so long in games, it's almost inevitable that relationships of that nature will occur.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that people are people. Humans are fallible. They can be swayed (consciously or not) and there's not a single reviewer out there who's a totally unbiased and impartial machine able to turn out effective analyses and criticism. Given that no one is perfect, I think it's worth saying that it's up to the reader to gauge the worth of any particular review, or of the reliability of any given reviewer.

As an example, there's one particular writer who I’ve followed over the years (and no, I'm not going to say who it is) who consistently gives a good score to big-name games that don't deserve it. This person "takes one for the team" more often than not, probably for financial reasons relating to their affiliated outlet,  and when I see this particular name on a review, I immediately discredit it because it's pretty clear (to me, anyway) that the writer leans that way.  

However, it's not like I think this person is being "paid off" by some publisher showing up with an envelope full of money (lulz!) or even that any threats are made about revoking ad revenue. It's probably more along the lines that this person lives with certain pressures and responsibilities on their shoulders, and that colors how they write. Hell, maybe they even believe what they're writing, and they just have really bad taste? Who knows. Regardless, rather than trying to call them out on this, I'm fine marking them down on my "do not read" list and moving on to find someone who suits me a little better.

Reviewing games is a squishy thing with a lot of gray areas and ethical conundrums, but with the exception of a few very isolated instances, I'm of the feeling that most people doing this work are doing it because they love it, and they have good intentions. Maybe sometimes things go a little awry, or maybe someone's being a little too nice for one reason or another, but that's a world apart from being “paid off” for a favorable review.

… And besides, ask anyone who's been doing this for a while and they'll tell you that there’s no money in reviewing, crooked or otherwise. Anybody with flexible morals and a desire for fast cash? They get into politics.

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Media: I think pretty much everybody on earth has heard about this by now, but I have to say that hearing about Disney buying LucasFilm didn't bother me in the least. 


George Lucas has proven QUITE CLEARLY that he is not fit to handle his own properties, and if flying an X-Wing over to the Mouse House is what it takes to get some decent Star Wars films, then I'm all for it.

The upcoming Episodes 7, 8 and 9? They can't be worse than the last three Lucas gave us.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dysfunction with Dishonored, and Diggin' Dokuro!  


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Games: I've been recovering from a pretty nasty cough over the last week or so, so I haven't had a whole lot of time to play games in between the hacking and gagging, but I did manage to do a few things...

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For starters, here's a link to the latest Gamecritics Podcast, Episode 81. We talked a little bit about Halloween-themed stuff, we help celebrate Mike’s 50th birthday, and we talk a lot about The Walking Dead, Episode 4. Check it out here if you need something to listen to.

Following that, here's a link to my XCOM: Enemy Unknown review. I have to say, I liked the final product a little less than I expected to. It's still a good game and I am very glad that the franchise has made a return, but it feels a little undercooked to me.

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Speaking of games which weren’t quite home runs, I have to admit that I'm shocked to say that Dishonored isn't floating my boat. I loved the demo at PAX and it has all of the elements that should appeal to me, but now that I've been sitting down with the full version... it's just not clicking. It's just not coming together. It started well, but it's gone... cold.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly what the problem is, but I think it's that many things are just slightly off, rather than one glaring issue. I'm not very far (just completed the Golden Cat) but I'm having a tough time coming back to it.


One thing that bugs me is that the game is divided up into zones. It really breaks my immersion to have to stop what I'm doing and let the game load a new area. It would be much more elegant to be able to ghost along the rooftops and get a real feel for the city. Along the same lines, I find that it's difficult to keep a clear picture in my head of where I am in relation to where other things are.

Other parts of the game don't sit quite right, either. Although some may disagree, I think a little voice acting for the main character would have helped bring the story together. I also don't get much enjoyment from the stealth -- although, to be fair, I'm pretty miserable at being sneaky in this game. I wouldn't have guessed it since I'm usually fairly decent at stealth in other titles, but watching me try to creep around is like a comedy of errors.

I've had several people tell me that I'm probably overthinking the stealth and that it's not as complicated as it appears, yet it's just not happening. Switching between powers feels fiddly. My situational awareness isn't there, and I feel clumsy. The levels feel fairly well-populated, so whenever I think I have a clear shot at someone, there is inevitably someone behind me, or who can see me from down the street or through a window.  At that point, it's re-load a save or start mowing guards down.


Also, I think it was a poor choice to have the starting zones be hostile. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome zipping from roof to roof when what I really want is to be able to walk around and take in each area. I was a little surprised to find that there were no Hitman-esque disguises or something along those lines. Additionally,  the “blink” power is often just a hair short of anywhere I want to go, even after upgrading it to the second level. Constantly being persecuted when trying to get my bearings, learn the game and how it works wasn't the best way to start for me. I think I would have preferred a gentler beginning -- at least until more powers unlock and I got into a groove with what the game wants me to do.

I don't mean to say that Dishonored is terrible (because it's not) but I've been troubled over the last two days trying to define exactly why it is that this game which seems custom-made for me is doing absolutely nothing for me… I don't think I've got it completely figured out, but the bottom line is that on some fundamental level,  the two of us aren't getting along.

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However, I am kind of ecstatic to report that I do get along with Dokuro -- and the fact that it's given me a reason to dust off my Vita makes this little game even sweeter. I've only just started playing it for my next formal review, but I'm in love with it so far.


The gist of it is that a demon steals a princess away to be his bride, and a little skeleton minion within his castle takes pity on her, and helps her escape. It's a simple formula, and what it boils down to is that the princess walks from left to right in each level, and it's up to the player (as the skeleton) to help her navigate her way to the exit.

It's not a wildly original formula, but the pleasure of Dokuro is in its details. For starters, the art style is absolutely fantastic... minimal, spare, yet appealing and emotive. It's also smartly designed in terms of how it plays. Although the princess walks a constant pace, she doesn't throw herself off of ledges or walk into lethal obstacles. It's a relief to not have to guard her against doing something stupid during every second gameplay. There's also a brilliant twist in that the skeleton can transform himself into a prince of sorts, and can pick her up as a means of giving the player a more direct way to control her movements and protect her from danger.


Although the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly, each level is quite small and a little trial and error reveals the solution to most problems. It's small, focused, has a great sense of style, and feels like a perfect fit for the Vita. I'm not done with it yet, but so far it's a big win.

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TV: Just another quick plug for Lost Girl via iTunes. I'm about halfway through the first season right now, and the show just keeps getting better and better. 


If a darker version of Buffy with sharp writing, fluid sexuality, and supernatural crime solving sounds like a thing for you... it's a thing for you. Get on it!

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Toys: The Transformers Prime line has been a bit of a mess since it launched, but it seems like Hasbro is getting its act together. Hopefully the next wave of toys will be better organized, and less of a headache to come to grips with in terms of locating specific ‘bots, picking through the various versions, and so on. 


Here's a quick look at the next big wave coming soon... they're still under the ‘Prime’ moniker, but the focus has clearly shifted towards a “beast hunting” theme.

Kinda cool!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Too many games, not enough time  

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Although it's exciting to see so many great games start popping up in the fourth quarter... there are too many great games popping up in the fourth quarter.

I've had my hands absolutely full with more stuff than any one man can handle, and then on top of that, I'm still trying to wrap up the edits on my book, plugging away at the good old day job, and spending as much quality time with the family as possible… it's pretty fair to say that "leisure time" isn't a phrase that exists in my vocabulary right now.

Anyway, getting back to the games, within the span of a week (more or less) we got Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, The Walking Dead Ep. 4, DLC for Borderlands 2 (if you’re into that sort of thing) and a lot of smaller stuff like Derrick the Deathfin and Unfinished Swan on PSN, DLC for Trials: Evo and A World of Keflings on 360, Blood of the Zombies and DLC for Elder Sign: Omens on iOS, and a bunch of other things that have slipped my mind at the moment.

Seriously, all of this? Practically at once?

I'd love to take my time and do a full review for nearly everything that just came out, but it's impossible to get to more than one or two in a "timely" manner, and the real shame is that so many of these projects are so deserving. As far as I'm concerned, 2012 has been a pretty outstanding year for gamers, and the hits just keep on coming.

I get that it's sort of a good problem to have as a player (and even as a reviewer) since having a wealth of quality content is always welcome, but I feel bad for the developers who have put so much time and effort into turning out these great games -- so much depends on publicity, mindshare, and word-of-mouth from the review sphere. It's an absolute shame when something worthwhile gets buried in an avalanche of releases like the one we are getting hit with now…

That said, there's only so much that can be done.

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News Flash! This just in! Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut has just been confirmed a few hours ago. Here's the info:


Acclaimed publisher Rising Star Games Inc today announced that the cult phenomenon hit, Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut, will be released in the US and Europe Q1 2013 exclusively for the PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system. High-definition graphics, fresh content and updated controls provide a whole new, outrageous gameplay experience for diehard fans and newcomers alike.

"I'm very happy Rising Star Games gave me the chance to work on Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut," said Hidetaka 'Swery' Suehiro, Director of Deadly Premonition. "It's been a while since Deadly Premonition was released, but I'm still receiving so many messages of support from fans around the world. I'm writing some exciting new scenarios and adding some new features. All will be revealed over the coming months and I'm confident I can deliver an unforgettable experience for you all."

Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut includes the following new features:  
  • New scenario from the game's director, Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro
  • HD graphics
  • Reworked control system allowing for an even better combat experience
  • Downloadable content to expand the mystery beyond the original game  


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Games: … Speaking of worthwhile things getting buried, I just completed The Testament of Sherlock Holmes on 360. Haven't heard of it? Didn't know it was out? Not too surprising -- see above.


Developed by Frogwares and put out by Atlus, it's a great point-and-click detective game that's very true to the character and a wonderful change of pace if you're in the mood for something slower and cerebral.

I'm just about to submit my review, but without really spoiling anything, it's safe to say that it will be a very positive one. There are some interesting aspects to the design and writing, and I can't remember the last title of this sort that I not only enjoyed, but enjoyed and finished.

Look for my review at GameCritics coming soon, and if you want to hear a little more about it now, I made a guest appearance on Josh and Jay’s Excellent Podcast. Jay is as much of a fan of this game as I am -- maybe even more -- and we spend about an hour discussing various aspects of it. Give a listen if you like, and if nothing else, at least know that this game is out there. Maybe once the holiday season is over and all of the “must buys” have been bought, you might be in the mood for something a little different.

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Here are a bunch of other game-related bits, rapid-fire and in no particular order:

>@GC_Danny’s Resident Evil 6 review is now up. It's pretty epic and very detailed, and he also takes a slightly different tack towards the material than most other reviewers did. You can check it out here, but if nothing else, know that he recommends everyone plays the game in the Jake, Chris, Leon order. According to Dan, playing it any other way really hurts the game’s buildup and storytelling.


Silent Hill: Book of Memories
>I tried the demo for Silent Hill: Book of Memories on Vita (it's available for download now) and I have to say, I thought it was shockingly cool. In a radical departure for the series, the game is a top-down dungeon crawler with customizable characters and sidequests. I know this approach sounds a little insane considering the source material, but you know, I felt like it worked. The play mechanics felt solid and well-fitting for a handheld, and there was a nice level of tension, if not the same sort of scares that the other iterations may offer.

>The Last Express is now available on iOS, and after hearing about this classic for years and years and years, I bought it on the spot and give it a whirl. I quit about a half an hour later. To make a long story short, the game very much feels like a product of its time… navigation was awkward and tedious, there were no subtitles offered even though there is an absolute ton of spoken dialogue, and I constantly got the sense that I might have been very impressed with it back in 1997. In 2012, it just felt very old and outdated.

>I’m a huge fan of I Am Alive (look for it on my top ten in December) and I was glad to see it finally arrive on the download services since it was well known that this particular game had a very troubled history. However, I had no idea exactly how troubled it was… According to this story onThe Game Effect, it was akin to being a living nightmare.

 >We at Gamecritics have been saying for years that games don't need to be fun, and it finally seems like more and more people are coming around to that way of thinking. Extra Credits has done a video on this very same topic, and they did a great job of explaining the idea that games can deliver all sorts of experiences -- sad, romantic, harrowing, soulful -- without the requirement that they be "fun" at the same time.

>Here are a couple of awesome resources for indie developers… If you're in the business of making games and you don't have a lock on your PR side, then you will soon find yourself out of the business of making games. Seriously, it shocks me to meet so many indie developers who really don't put much effort into networking, advertising, and getting the word out there. Take a look at these two things, and it’ll help.


Dead Island: Riptide
>Deep Silver needs your feedback on what should be included for the upcoming Collector’s Edition of Dead Island: Riptide. Tell them what you want right here.

> I made an offer on this blog a while ago to help anyone who was getting involved with Greenlight on Steam, and I was contacted about 1953 –KGB Unleashed. I have not played the game myself, nor do I have any stake in it, but an offer is an offer so here's a heads up that it exists and wants your votes.

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...Whew! Deep breath...

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TV: Before I go on a rant here, let me give a quick shout-out to Lost Girl on SyFy. The wife discovered it randomly searching through iTunes and we gave it a shot just because, and I've got to say, we were pleasantly surprised.


The gist is that the main character is a succubus who doesn't know who or what she is. She knows she's not human since she sucks the life energy out of people at random intervals, but otherwise, she's clueless. Eventually she bumps into other members of the Fae world, and events slowly unfold from there.

We are pretty early in the first season at the moment, but despite having an aversion to fairy-themed things, this show is hitting all the right notes. The writing is smart, often adult-oriented and has a good sense of humor. It comes off like a slightly-darker Buffy, at times.

The action in the show comes in two forms: combat and sexual. In both respects, it's ultra refreshing to watch a female lead character who doesn't shrink back from either, and who shows no qualms about getting things done, whether it's killing oncoming enemies or seducing someone who's got information. The protagonist, Bo, is a strong, bold woman who stands up for herself, and I think that's pretty awesome.

I'm hoping that the rest of the first season is as good as the episodes we've already seen, but we added this one to our regular rotation right off the bat. For whatever reason it seems to be flying pretty low under the radar at the moment, but give it a shot if anything I’ve described sounds even remotely interesting.

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Okay, so that rant... I'm a little overdue with this, but Doctor Who ran its midseason finale recently. It's no secret that I haven't been a fan of Moffatt’s run on the show for various reasons, but one of the biggest is that I've never liked Amy Pond.

I thought the first episode of the re-reboot starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan started off wonderfully and the story featuring young Amy was great. It inspired a lot of confidence in me at the time, and I felt as though the show was going to continue on in fine form. That opinion changed rapidly.

...Must I really watch ONE MORE POND EPISODE?
I quickly grew to despise Amy. She never clicked, or became likable. She was irritating, obnoxious, had too much attitude, and seemed to become too comfortable with interstellar adventuring too soon.  And don't get me wrong -- it's got nothing to do with the fact that she was a ‘strong woman’ or whatnot. My favorite run of the entire show was the Donna arc.

In my opinion, Donna has been the best companion of the entire reboot, with her character being a great counterpoint to Tennant’s Doctor, humanizing him and keeping him in check. Amy’s relationship to Smith’s Doctor just doesn't fit in my mind. He seems to bumble around and act confused, and she gets bossy and is generally unhappy with things. This dynamic just doesn't work for me.

As the show went on, I got the sense that Moffatt was either infatuated with her character, or simply couldn't come up with any other ideas besides making the last two and half years all about Amy. I mean, honestly, instead of calling it Doctor Who, it could have been retitled “The Amy & River Show” and that would've made more sense.

(And don't get me started on River... she’s just as annoying as Amy, and makes even less sense as a character.)

In any event, last week's episode was the goodbye to Amy (and Rory, sadly) and I'm happy to see her go. The plot itself had a few interesting points, but I haven't enjoyed seeing the Angels as often as we have, and the story overall felt half-baked. The ultimate resolution and departure of the Ponds was much like the last 2 1/2 years have been -- full of plot holes, poorly-explained story points, and largely unsatisfying. Even so, I'm glad that we can finally say goodbye to Amy, the quality of the writing notwithstanding. In fact, I'm tempted to say that the next companion can't possibly be worse, but that would be a level of jinx that I'm not prepared to commit to right now…

My thoughts on that final episode aside, I've been listening to the Lonely Tardis podcast over the last week or so, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who's interested in Whovian chitchat. Two of the three cast members are definitely bigger fans of the re-reboot than I am, but they all have interesting viewpoints and frequently raise issues and facets of the show that are great to chew on. You can check it out right here, and tell them that I sent you.


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For players who want to get ready for the 2013 launch of THQ's highly-anticipated first-person shooter Metro: Last Light, they can soon purchase the critically acclaimed, cult-classic Metro 2033 for half-off on Xbox LIVE. Metro 2033 will be available for $9.99 USD beginning tomorrow for a limited time only. The deal ends Monday, Oct. 22!

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Keflings fans will get the chance to Trick and Treat this month thanks to two new kingdoms, graveyard and candy, coming as DLC to A World of Keflings on Xbox Live Arcade. Both DLC packs will arrive in time for Halloween with ‘Sugar, Spice and Not So Nice’ (the candy DLC) releasing Wednesday Oct. 10 for 320 Microsoft Points.
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ATLUS, a brand of Index Digital Media, Inc., today unveiled plans to localize and publish Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan, the latest entry in the long-running RPG franchise designed as a contemporary homage to the pen and paper roleplaying games of old.

Marking the series' arrival on the Nintendo 3DS, Legends of the Titan introduces a wide range of enhancements and additions, including a greatly improved graphics engine with polygonal enemies and special effects designed to take full advantage of the platform's unique 3D capabilities.
As with previous games in the series, players explore beautiful yet menacing realms - each varied in flora and fauna - mapping their journey along the way using the touch screen and their stylus. No two games are ever the same, thanks to a character creation and party customization system that encourages experimentation and rewards creativity and imagination.
Moreover, while Legends of the Titan - built with older hardcore gamers in mind -- is still a brutal challenge and not for the faint of heart, a new Casual mode option ensures newcomers to the series and genre need not be intimidated.

Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan is scheduled to launch in early 2013, exclusively for Nintendo 3DS. For more information, visit the game's teaser website at www.atlus.com/etrian4.

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The 2012 IndieCade has named this year’s award winners, including the Grand Jury Award going toUnmanned, created by Molleindustria. IndieCade recognizes superior examples of story development, visual, technological, audio and all-around independent game titles as well as a creator who has greatly contributed to the independent gaming field.
The game and developer winners this year are:
Grand Jury Award: Unmanned- Molleindustria
Visuals: Gorogoa-  Jason  Roberts
Audio: Dyad- RSBLSB
Impact: Reality Ends Here- Jeff Watson and Simon Wiscombe, USC Game Innovation Lab
Interaction: Interference –Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman
Game Design: Armada D6-  Eric Zimmerman and John Sharp
Technology: Vornheim- Zak S.
Story/ World Design: Botanicula- Amanita Designs
Special Recognition: The Stanley Parable- Davey  Wreden
The Trailblazers Award: Elan Lee
Developers Choice Award: Renga- wallFour
Audience Choice Award:  Hokra- Ramiro  Corbetta
The first annual IndieCade EAST will occur on Saturday – Sunday, Feb. 16 -17, 2013 in New York City at theMuseum of the Moving Image.  IndieCade EAST will provide attendees the chance to play some of the 2012 IndieCade finalists, award winners and official selections, watch films about game culture, participate in the first ever IndieCade East Coast Game Jam hosted by Playstation Mobile in addition to hear speeches from game designers, journalists as well as game academics.
For more information, visit http://www.indiecade.com/

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Simutronics today launched a MASSIVE update for One Epic Knight.  The 1.2 update brings a number of new features to the game, including:
Upgraded Controls: Epic Knight is now more agile with new moves, including
Faster Lane Changes
Swipe up while in the air to extend a jump a little bit
Swipe down while in the air to return to the ground faster
Swipe left or right to change lanes mid-air
Pit and ledge lighting improved for enhanced visibility
New Trinket System: Players can purchase and equip up to two trinkets at a time to enhance their Epic Knight
Two new potions, and players will receive a free potion for their first run of the day
Three new achievements
New coin and bundle packages available in the store
New Epic Knight sayings! Can you find them all?
Gameplay Fixes and support for the iPhone 5’s larger screen
One Epic Knight is a free-running platformer featuring simple controls, numerous upgrades, and addicting gameplay. Gamers maneuver Epic Knight through an ever-changing dungeon, avoiding traps and collecting gold in order to upgrade and improve their epic Knight.
You can download the game now for FREE in the iOS App Store.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

The Walking Dead, Ep. 3 - The Third Perspective  


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This blog post is going to be about events that take place in The Walking Dead, Episode 3
If you haven't already played this episode, do not read this post.


 The entire content of what I'm about to say is a massive, massive spoiler, and I am not one of those people who thinks that knowing what happens ahead of time doesn't affect a player’s enjoyment. I hate spoilers, I do what I can to avoid them myself, and I certainly try not to spoil anything for anyone else.

I say again, for clarity: if you have not already finished Walking Dead, Episode 3…
DO NOT READ THIS POST.

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Still here?

So the other day, Telltale released this trailer which went over the various choices in Ep. 3 and showed the percentages of which players chose what. I found myself in the minority for every single option and it didn't surprise me that much; most of the decision points were evenly split, more or less.

However, the choice regarding whether the player would volunteer to shoot Duck was skewed heavily towards ‘would shoot him’. In fact, the exact percentage was that 81% would do the deed, with only 19% making Kenny shoot Duck himself.


Although this number has grown since the first time I completed the episode, it was a similar ratio, even back then. I’ve thought about it quite frequently since that time, and it's been something that's stayed with me. 

I thought that after I had the chance to discuss it with the rest of the critics on our podcast that I'd be able to get it out of my system, but I still didn't feel like I made peace with it. In fact, I think I even felt a little worse, since I failed to articulate this one particular point on the show, and it totally slipped my mind until after we'd finished recording.

As a parent of two boys myself, I think I was especially sensitive to the content of Ep. 3 for obvious reasons. It's entirely too easy to imagine myself in the role of the characters trying to survive the zombie apocalypse, and I could hardly think of a more stressful situation in which to take care of a child. Simple day to day care is already my most important job and the biggest challenge of my life to do well -- adding zombies into the mix would push it through the roof. Hell, forget the roof... try the stratosphere.

In any event, I've talked about this particular scene several times with other people, and it's always struck me that while explaining why someone chose one way or another, I've never heard anyone talk about making this choice based on Duck.

What do I mean?

Obviously, that the player must make a choice about putting Duck out of his misery is based on the fact that he’s about to turn into a zombie after being bitten, but every person I've talked to -- and I literally mean every single one -- has made their case from the viewpoint of Lee or Kenny. Not a single person cited Duck’s perspective as even a minor factor.


When I got to the scene myself, I think it's important to note that I was quite surprised to find that Katja didn't end Duck herself. Throughout all three episodes, she’s always seemed to be a very caring, responsible mother, and I found it shocking to see that she took the easy way out by committing suicide and leaving Duck to slowly turn.  I genuinely did not expect that based on what I knew of her.

While it may have been somewhat false in terms of her character (or perhaps not) it's easy to see that this scenario was specifically crafted to put the player in the exact position of making this choice which has bothered me so much. After discovering that Katja was gone and that I, as the player, was at a pivotal moment, I chose to make Kenny pull the trigger, and here’s why:

As a father, I work hard to do the best for my children that I possibly can, and that includes making choices which may not be palatable, yet they’re done because they benefit my little ones. I'm often exhausted at the end of the night, but I read that third book before bedtime because my little boy wants it. There have been plenty of times when I wanted to zone out in front of a game or go write a review, but instead I sit down and build that train track because those are quality moments that are gone forever after they pass by. The best parent is willing to sacrifice some measure of their own satisfaction or self-fulfillment and if it comes at the cost of their child’s.

Of course, I can see why a player might choose either Lee or Kenny. There are certainly arguments to be made for both sides, and Telltale wants people to feel torn at every single fork in the road. That said, the fact that I have yet to hear anyone bring up what Duck might have wanted has been constantly nagging away at me.

Putting myself in Duck’s shoes, it seemed only natural that he would want to see and be with his father before passing away, and by letting Lee take that final action, it would be as if Kenny denied his son the only possible comfort he could in what little time was left -- It would be Kenny avoiding ending his own son's life for his own sake, rather than being strong and doing the hard thing for Duck.

Of course Duck was feverishly infected, and of course he may not even have been conscious at the moment when Lee and Kenny were standing over him, but what if he was somehow aware of what was going on? What if some small sliver of his consciousness was able to take in the scene around him?


It seemed to me that the only real option was to have Kenny take responsibility as a father and be there for his son in his final moments. By offering to pull the trigger, Lee was providing an enormous service to be sure, but the way I read this scene in relation to my own feelings, Kenny should have refused Lee and put Duck first. More than that, it seems like more players -- the ones who have kids of their own, at the very least -- should have at least mentioned Duck in their reasoning process.

I fully realize that this game is fiction, and that all of the characters involved are imaginary creations, but there's no denying the power and emotion that The Walking Dead is capable of creating in players. I just can't get over the fact that this poor little boy ended up as a thing that a decision was made about, rather than being treated as the young person deserving of compassion and consideration that he was.

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Friday, October 5, 2012

Profile On: Games Writer Travis Stout  


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Profile: During this year’s PAX Prime, I attended a hands-on preview for State of Decay, a new open-world zombie title hitting XBLA early in 2013.  While there, I happened to randomly start up a conversation with one of the developers walking by. This person turned out to be Travis Stout, a writer and designer who’s done work on some of my favorite games of all time.

I could hardly believe the coincidence.

Since we’re both Seattle area residents living just a short distance apart, Travis was gracious enough to meet me for an in-depth chat over a burger and some fries downtown.

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Background Originally from Florida, Travis has always been a hard-core player of all kinds of games.


At the time he got serious professionally, he was 19 or 20, and going to school to become an animator. He was terrible. (His words, not mine.) Seeing that his future lay in a different direction, he wrote a letter to a small pen-and-paper RPG company which essentially said “I have no experience but I’m a good writer, please hire me.”

…And they did.

Keeping on in the same vein, he eventually approached White Wolf with a similar request that they hire him.

…And they did.

He kept on designing tabletop scenarios until one day when he went to the Obsidian website in search of a patch for Knights of the Old Republic 2.  While clicking through the site, he happened to notice a banner ad announcing that they were hiring.  He wrote yet another letter in an attempt to go from pen and paper to electronic. “I’ve written for tabletop, but have no videogame experience.  Please hire me.”

…And they did.

I was quite impressed with this do-it-yourself, can-do attitude, and clearly it worked wonders for him -- not only did he get work, he got great work.

Travis has been the author of a number of White Wolf and Dungeons & Dragons materials, and his videogame experience is even more impressive.  In one way or another, he’s been involved with Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout: New Vegas, Dungeon Siege III, the upcoming South Park: The Stick of Truth, and one of my personal (cult) favorites, Alpha Protocol

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On Fallout: New Vegas Travis worked on a variety of things, but specifically the dialogue and quest design for the Great Khan faction, the companion characters Raul and Lily, all of the AI appliances as well as the player’s brain in the Old World Blues DLC, and the dialogue for EDI in the Lonesome Road DLC.

@ecavalli asked: Was there a firm directive to make the script more like the first two Fallouts than Fallout 3, or was that just a happy accident?

Travis: It was just a natural growth process based on the people who were there.  It was a fun company to work for and many of them had worked on the older games, so it just happened that way.  There was never any direct order from management, or anything like that.  Also, at some points the humor was meant as an acknowledgement to fans who were familiar with the older titles.

@GreatCharleston asked: What did you enjoy writing the most in New Vegas?

Travis: EDI’s dialogue in Lonesome Road, or Muggy the mini Securitron in Old World Blues – Muggy’s voice actor totally nailed the dialogue and fit the writing perfectly.

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On Alpha Protocol Travis did level design and dialogue in the Taipei section, and nearly all of the dialogue for fan-favorite character Steven Heck.

I asked if he had been responsible for some of the twists and turns that happen in that section.  His response was that Chris Avellone plotted out all of the intrigue, so he was the one who masterminded all of the double-crosses and secret agent activity.

@FinalMacstorm asked: What were the inspirations for the characters you worked on in New Vegas and Alpha Protocol?

Travis: It’s hard to answer that one, since I drew from a lot of sources.  However, the voice actors were cast before we were done writing, so their presence definitely influenced the scripts.  Having them around and hearing their deliveries had an effect on the writing, for sure.

My final question on the subject was whether or not Travis was disappointed about the critical reception and success of the game itself.

Travis: That’s hard to answer.  Honestly, I thought it turned out pretty well for a game that Obsidian built by themselves from the ground up, and it ended up selling all right.  There were some challenges there, though.

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On State of Decay Travis is the sole writer, and is handling all of the characterizations and dialogue for around 50 different personalities in the game.  He states that he works with a great team, and that he never feels alone in this task thanks to a lot of constant feedback and input from his coworkers at Undead Labs – he describes it as a community approach to his work. 

When asked about the size of his task, he stated that Decay (at the current time) has around 15,000 lines of dialogue.  By comparison, he estimates that New Vegas has somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 lines, or so.  

It’s also worth noting that because Decay is a different sort of game and not a traditional RPG, his focus as a writer has been making the characters in the game broadly appealing, but not as in-depth as a regular role-player…  He stated that although there won’t be a dialog wheel with an hour’s worth of conversation for each character, his goal is that players will be able to easily recall which character has which traits, and what quirks are in their personalities.

@lamournumerique asked: Is Class 4 still a thing, are you working on it, and is it coming to 360?

[For clarification, State of Decay was known as Class 3 during early development, and a larger, rumored-to-be MMO version of this property was dubbed Class 4.]

Travis: Yes, it’s still a thing, and I will be working on it.  Other than that, I can’t say much about it.

I asked what happened to the rumored multiplayer options in State of Decay, which is now a dedicated single player experience.  Also, if we can assume that Class 4 will be multiplayer-oriented, will it be coming to 360 as well as PC?

Travis: We had thought about having co-op in State of Decay, but it would have taken resources away from other aspects of the game that we wanted to nail, like the base-building and other stuff like that. We wanted to make sure that everything we delivered was the best. As far as whether or not Class 4 will be coming to 360, no comment.

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At this point, it was about time to wrap it up, but we had time for one last question. I was curious: what sort of game would Travis produce if he was calling the shots and had enough of the budget to make it happen?

At this, he shied away a bit. His reason being that he's got something very clearly in mind, but he doesn't want to talk about it, since he hopes to actually bring it to life one day. What he did say, however, was that this theoretical property would focus on playing with genre expectations and twist clich├ęs around... he's been interested in deconstructing things, and feels that current games don't do enough of it.

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After finishing the food and paying the tab, we shook hands and parted ways. It was a real pleasure to speak with someone who had been responsible for so many hours of gameplay that I had cherished over the last few years, and I definitely look forward to what he's going to do next.

Infinite thanks to Travis Stout, and to Sanya Weathers of Undead Labs for making this chat session happen. For more information on Travis’ work or State of Decay, please check out the official website and look out for it in early 2013 on XBLA.

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