Category Archives: Playing Games

Portal 2 Has a Great Adventure Game Story

(This essay, needless to say, is going to spoil Portal 2 like the recent tornado and subsequent power outage did to the food in my refrigerator. Don’t read if you haven’t played the game.)

Almost four years ago, Valve released Portal, a little game stuck in The Orange Box alongside much more eagerly awaited games like the new episode of Half-Life 2. It became a surprise success, and I fell in love with it. Portal 2 isn’t the astounding surprise package of awesome that Portal was, but it’s still a triumph in its own right. The single-player campaign is wonderful and a joyful celebration of puzzle-solving, the co-op campaign is well-crafted and provides an experience that echoes the newness of the original game, and the whole game exhibits great game design from the sound to the visual cues to the writing. What intrigues me the most about Portal 2 is how it has the best adventure game story I’ve seen since adventure games died1.

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My Fiasco Playset “Town and Gown” is Out

While I was away dodging weather, my “Town and Gown” playset for Fiasco came out!

cover for my Town and Gown Fiasco playsetFiasco is a role-playing game that re-creates neo-noir stories like those found in Coen Brothers movies. Given my history with small-town universities, I couldn’t resist creating a Fiasco setting based on one.

Universities are strange places, and small town universities even more so. Faculty fight viciously with each other because the stakes are so low. Students grub for grades, or give up and drift through school. Townies hate the school, but it’s the only thing keeping the town alive, and many of them go to school part-time.

Given the pressure and the fault lines that run deep beneath, it’s no wonder that sometimes cracks appear.

I learned a lot about writing a Fiasco playset in the process, much of it thanks to feedback from Jason Morningstar, creator of Fiasco. The trickiest part was getting relationships right. Because of how you generate a Fiasco setup, all relationships have to work with all other ones. My first draft had people playing faculty members, students, and townies. That led to some odd potential contradictions: what if two people had a relationship that indicated they were faculty members, but one of those two had a second relationship that indicated they were students? That’s why many Fiasco playsets carefully segregate the relationships into non-exclusive groups such as family members, people who work together, people who know each other through hobbies, etc. In my case, once I made the default assumption that all of the players were students, I could much more easily put together relationships that meshed well.

(You can break this rule, of course. Jason’s Lucky Strike playset assumes that everyone’s an American soldier in World War II. There’s a set of special-case relationships, like “German prisoner of war and guard”, that break this assumption. They’re grouped together and labeled “use with care” to help players realize that they’ll have to work harder if they want to incorporate these relationships.)

I had fun mixing very specific and more gonzo elements (like the “Neophyte Marxist revolutionaries” relationship or the truly unfortunate object “a roomate who died”) with more prosaic and simple ones (like the cafeteria and coffee shop, or the thirty-ought-six rifle). I hinted at possible story lines for players to run with: there are suggestions that something unsavory is up with the local YMCA, that bad things have been going down at the gravel pit down by the river, and that the town mayor may not be on the up-and-up. Even if the elements related to those story lines aren’t used in a game, they tend to inform players’ choices and vision of what the university and surrounding town are like. I chose a couple of elements to refer to multiple times, because I like claustrophobic Fiasco settings. I also spent a lot of time thinking, “How can this relationship, need, location or object be troublesome?” That lent the playset a seedy, sinister undertone that I really like.

“Town and Gown” is free to download and guaranteed to cause quite a fiasco.

“Happy Birthday, Robot!” is an Excellent Storytelling Game

If you like storytelling games, and especially if you have young children in your life, I cannot recommend Daniel Solis’s Happy Birthday, Robot! highly enough. Using dice and coins, up to five players collaboratively create a story about Robot’s birthday. The game serves as creativity fuel, helps you practice collaborative storytelling, and is a whole bunch of fun.

Art for Happy Birthday, Robot!

Every story starts the same: “Happy birthday, Robot!” From there players take turns being the Storyteller. When you’re the Storyteller you roll dice, keeping some and giving others to the players on your left and right. You then write a sentence to keep the story going. You can write as many words as you have dice, but you get the word “Robot” (or “Robot’s”) for free. The player to your right then adds to your sentence using the same rules, only they get the word “and” for free. Then the player to your left adds even more to the sentence, their free word being “but”.

It’s both very silly and very entertaining. As an example, here’s the story Eli, Misty and I created last night.

Happy birthday, Robot!

Robot went flying and had fun but zoomed down quickly.

As he fell, Robot began to sing and dance but landed on a trampoline.

Robot bounced up into the sky and broke apart into tinier robots.

One tiny robot commanded the others and yelled, “Back to the sky, buddies!”

Tiny robots raced skyward (and how!) but one crashed into an eagle.

And that robot fell down into a trampoline pit.

Robot broke through the trampoline and fell to the hot lava below.

Robot buddies raced down and fished him out of the lava but one fell down.

The other robots helped him out but the hook came off.

All the robots became best friends.

Fun times had by robots!

(The hook that came off, in case you’re wondering, was evidently from where the other robots fished the one robot out of the lava.)

You can get a PDF of the game for $10 or a beautiful booklet of it for $25. If Happy Birthday, Robot! sounds a little too child-like for you because your heart is shriveled, you should instead take a look at Solis’s Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Solis is raising the funds to publish the game, and if you donate you can get all kinds of cool stuff plus the warm feeling of having helped something cool come into being.

Today You Should Go Play FRACT

FRACT is a first-person adventure game, similar in gameplay to puzzle games like Myst, set in a strange, abstract world filled with TRON-like structures that are in part reified electronica sounds. I cannot tell you how in my wheelhouse this game is. Here, take a look at what the game looks and sounds like.

It’s a finalist in the Student Showcase part of the 13th Annual Independent Games Festival, with reason. If you like awesome things that are awesome and have a PC or a Mac, you should give FRACT a try.