Category Archives: Videogames

Three New Space Quest Fan Games

Growing up, I loved the Sierra On-Line video games. They were the first adventure games I played that had graphics. Oh, the graphics they had! Sixteen colors! (Assuming you had an IBM PCjr or a Tandy 1000, like me.) And the music! Blippy bloopy music! Plus instant-death and read-the-designer’s-mind puzzles!

Look, it was the ’80s. We took what we could get.

They had several series, but my favorite by far was Space Quest. The early games had a serious science fiction setting contrasted with a bumbling protagonist named Roger Wilco who, like Inspector Clouseau, managed to succeed despite himself. If you want an idea of what the early Space Quest games were like, read through this “Let’s Play” transcript from Space Quest I.

Space Quest 1 and the washing machine puzzleI blazed through Space Quest I…until I snuck on board the evil Sariens’ spaceship. I hit a point where I was skulking in a laundry room when a Sarien came in and shot me. I hid in the washing machine, only to have the Sarien turn on the washing machine. I assumed that that killed me, since the game was as full of instant-death moments as a deep-fried turducken is of cholesterol, so I reloaded and tried to find another solution.

I failed. I failed so hard that I scraped together my allowance and bought the hint book. Imagine my surprise when I read the clues for this puzzle to find out that hiding in the washing machine didn’t kill me, it magically dressed me in a Sarien uniform.

Even today I remember how stupid I felt.

Despite that moment of dumbness, I kept going and ended up being a fan of the Space Quest series. Now, nearly two decades since the last Space Quest game was released, there is not one, not two, but three fan-made sequels. In one month. This is akin to finding a twenty-dollar bill in the couch and pulling it out to find two thousand-dollar bills taped to the twenty.

Space Quest 2: Vohaul's Revenge Remake screenshotThe first is a remake of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. The creators have replaced the original game’s text parser (which was fiddly at the best of times) with the icon-based interface Sierra used in its later adventures, updated the graphics, and added voice acting. I loved SQ2 when I was wee, which means that it’s probably a terrible game that you should never play. Nevertheless, if you play only one SQ2, this remake should be it.

Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back screenshotThe second is Vohaul Strikes Back. It’s an entirely new game in the Space Quest universe that’s set after the official series ended. By all accounts it’s somewhat self-referential but still playable even if you’re not already a fan of the series, and has a lot of the humor you’d expect from a Space Quest sequel.

Space Quest: Incinerations screenshotThe final one is Space Quest: Incinerations. This is the one that I find the most intriguing. For one, all of the graphics look like rotoscoped CG characters. For another, the scope of the game is much larger and more epic than the others — it’s Space Quest on a more truly interstellar scale. It also appears to fit tightly into the Space Quest universe, with many plot elements from earlier games making an appearance.

Richard Cobbett reviewed all three games for Rock, Paper Shotgun if you’d like to learn more — and I know you do. Me? I’m going to be playing Incinerations this weekend.

Terrible Videogame Voice Acting Acted Out

In my discussion of Portal 2, I talked about the game had the best voice acting I’d ever heard in a videogame. Sadly, as this video shows, that’s damning with faint praise.

My favorites are the over-written ones that sound like they should be in the Lyttle Lytton contest. Right now I’m torn between “Hold me if I’m dying, and vice-versa, okay?”, “I’m going to tell you a little secret, just to make it so you really don’t want to die”, and “I like girls, but now it’s about justice.”

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.

Continue reading Portal 2 Has a Great Adventure Game Story

Chain World Recapitulates Religious Schisms

It turns out that a game designed to have religious overtones has rapidly gone through a lifecycle that mimics several Western religions.

For the past several years the Game Design Challenge panel at the Games Developer Conference has asked a few game developers to spend the week before GDC creating a themed game. This year the theme was “Bigger than Jesus.” Jenova Chen, John Romero, and Jason Rohrer were to make a game that could become a religion.

Jason Rohrer knocked it out of the park. He created Chain World, which was a Minecraft world on a USB drive and some commandments. The commandments specified that one player at a time would play Chain World, changing the world, until the player died. At that point the player would save the game and pass the USB to another interested player.

Chain World is a chance to place your mark on a virtual world and pass it on to someone else who only knows you through what you’ve done to that world. It has nine or eleven commandments, depending on how you count.

Of course it mutated instantly.

The first recipient of the USB drive from Jason Rohrer, Jia Ji, decided to auction off the next slot on eBay for charity. Moreover, he specified that the recipient after that should be Jane McGonigal (a famous author and proponent of gamification), followed by the winner of another charity auction, and then Wil Wright. Jia Ji had set a precedence that you could have access to Chain World either by being famous or paying for that access, neither of which were expressly forbidden by Jason Rohrer’s nineish commandments.

As you might imagine, this caused some backlash. Some game designers criticized what Ji had done. Jane McGonigal responded to one of those critics by saying, “[Y]ou are seriously upset about raising money for sick kids?” Jason Rohrer chimed in, saying that the winner of the eBay auction shouldn’t mail the game to McGonigal.

So to recap: a game intended to be religious was changed by its first disciple so that access to the religion involved either money or being famous. Possible responses include subverting it within or declaring a reformation and forking the project. Sound familiar?

I’m fascinated that an artificial simulation designed to mimic religion has re-created religious schisms and arguments. I’m also fascinated that it exposes a fundamental disconnect between gamification adherents and some traditional game designers. Gamification as espoused by McGonigal and others is about using game mechanics as a means to a non-game end, which dovetails nicely with Ji’s desire to use Chain World as a means to raise money for charity. Many game designers view games themselves as an end rather than a means. For them, Chain World shouldn’t be used for other purposes. Its reason for existing is to be itself.

You want to know why I care about games? This is why. Chain World has spawned arguments about the greater meaning of games and how they reflect the wider world. Leave aside arguments about whether games are art or not. Games like Chain World have something to say about our lives.

Why the Dead Island Trailer is Exploitative

The trailer for the game Dead Island is striking both in content and presentation. The trailer’s focus on a young girl turned into a zombie has sparked debate, so of course I have to weigh in!

Be warned: the trailer is gory and disturbing.

The trailer is for a game but it functions like a film trailer, seeking to establish a mood and evoke emotion while giving an idea of what the game is about. It uses a filmic shorthand that people are familiar with. The trailer’s down-tempo piano music performs the same function as Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” has since it showed up in The Elephant Man: provide an elegiac soundtrack signaling that Very Sad Things Are Going On. The slow-motion effects re-enforce that mood of sadness and inevitability. The story centers on the death and zombification of a little girl in front of her parents to provide an emotional wallop, especially to those who are parents themselves. It’s no surprise that they chose to make the kid a girl instead of a boy, since our cultural narrative is that little girls must be protected while little boys can be adventurous.

The trailer’s structure adds to the sense of inevitability. It’s a short scene about a girl running from zombies before becoming one herself, attacking her dad, and being thrown out of a window to land dead on the ground below. The scene is shown simultaneously from the beginning moving forward and from the end moving backward, until the two narrative strands meet at the turning point of her being bitten. It’s like the Greek concept of tragedy without the hubris: you know what’s going to happen and you don’t want it to happen, yet you watch it happen anyway. And that last image before the titles, with the dad moving backward in time away from his just-bitten daughter, symbolizing the theme of the whole trailer — man.

What’s notable is that this trailer for a game never indicates that it’s for a game. It’s a short film that shows no gameplay and doesn’t even indicate that it’s for a game. I’m betting that that’s because we don’t yet have a common visual shorthand for games and gameplay. We do for films, though, and the developers chose to borrow that language to gain attention for their game.

Some have called the trailer exploitative, especially since the developers chose to center their scene on a little girl’s death. It is undoubtedly exploitative, but in much the same way that many film trailers are. It’s aiming to cause a gut reaction, and using everything it can to get that reaction quickly. Three minutes aren’t a lot of time to develop characters and get us to care in the people being shown without having them be archetypes. If that were all there were to it, I wouldn’t be concerned. Here’s the thing, though: is this trailer what the game is about? Everything I’ve read about the game indicates that it isn’t. The game’s a standard zombie survival one where you run around smacking zombies around with lead pipes and axes. Jason Schreier at Wired.com spoke to the game’s publisher, who confirmed that it’s a film that “takes place in the world of Dead Island.”

That’s why I think it’s exploitative in a way that’s beyond normal game and movie exploitation. It’s using the images of a young girl dying not because it’s central to the game or necessarily indicates its theme, but because it’s attention-grabbing. When I look at this trailer, I see something technically proficient that has a hollow center.