The Playlist / Those Tenuous Twos

  • Reading time:23 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

You may have read the first part of this column in the December 2009 Play Magazine. It was intended as a single article, and the start of a whole series of such lists. In the event, I was asked (due to my incorrigible verbosity) to break the article into three pieces; only the first found its way to print. Here is the column in full.

Used to be, when a game was successful enough to demand a sequel, the design team would do its best to avoid repeating itself. Though I’m sure they mostly wanted to keep their job interesting, the practical effect was that if the games were different, they would both remain relevant. In an arcade, Donkey Kong Jr. could stand handsomely by its father, each shilling for its own share of the coin. You might call them companion pieces, rather than updates or replacements.

When home consoles hit, design teams were even more modest, and were generally left to do their own thing. So starting on the NES, you will see a certain trend: successful game spawns weird, only tenuously related sequel; fans of the original scratch their heads; a greatly expanded dev team releases a third game, which is basically just the first again, on steroids; fans think it’s the best thing ever, because it’s exactly the same, except better! And to hell with that weird second chapter.

Thing is… usually the second game is the most interesting you’ll ever see.

Catharsis Is Not Enough

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the October issue of Play Magazine.

A new study of gamer health, conducted by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory and Andrews Universities and published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, observes a correlation between extensive videogame use, obesity, and depression.

The expectation going in was that gamers would tend to have a higher body mass index, and “a greater number of poor mental health days” than non-gamers; after studying 552 adults in and around Seattle, that assumption looks pretty much true.

Brütal Irony

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the September issue of Play Magazine.

Remember last year, when the newly-merged Activision Blizzard decided to shuck itself of properties unlikely to lead to a major franchise? Suddenly several high-profile one-off projects like Ghostbusters were left without a publisher. Though most quickly found a new host, Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s heavy metal adventure Brütal Legend was left grasping. In December the recently progressive Electronic Arts stepped up, and all seemed back on track.

Or maybe not.

Crowded Field, Modest Diversity Slowly Implodes Industry

  • Reading time:3 min(s) read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the August issue of Play Magazine, split into a few blurbs across a two-page spread. I thought it rather worked in that format.

While everyone is freaking out about the economy, some trends are older and more reliable. Over the last decade, as the game industry has become big business and budgets have skyrocketed, yet everyone has continued to produce more less the same material, more and more groups and individuals have had to compromise.

From a discussion about a potential new TARDIS interior

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If you wanna get analytical (and assuming we’re looking at some technological solution), it seems like the choices we’re looking at are:

A) A high use of high technology (Star Trek: TNG)
B) A high use of low technology (steampunk)
C) A low use of high technology (cyberpunk)
D) A low use of low technology (Rube Goldberg?)
E) An inscrutable use of high technology (Impressive, flashy stuff that does… what, exactly?)
F) An inscrutable use of low technology (Levers that do… what, exactly?)
G) A high use of inscrutable technology (Teleportation jelly?)
H) A low use of inscrutable technology (Ping pong of the gods?)

The current, “coral” interior seems to be some mix of F (bicycle pump) and G (organic elements, god vapors under the console), with a twinge of D (modern phones, TV, scaffolding). The original interior seems to be some mix of E and G, with a bit of A.

I think the really interesting question isn’t so much the style but the use of the set.

Early on, the Davies interior felt a bit dangerous, rattly; incomprehensible both through the technology at display and the way it was apparently thrown together. It seemed just as likely to do something unimaginable as fall apart at any moment. Since then, from the way it’s been used and shot, the interior has become cozy and sort of arbitrary. Most of the psychological weight has dissipated.

The original TARDIS, meanwhile, seems like it was meant to give sort of this impression —

It strikes me a way the new series (say, under Moffat) could tackle the “default” TARDIS interior would be to play up the stark, brilliant alien sterility. Make it almost blindingly white in there, so it’s hard to see the walls and there’s a bit of a haze around its occupants. Turn up the ambient hum. Maybe make the light from the roundels thrum a bit, like a mechanical heartbeat. Perhaps make them a sky blue?

The thing is, the classic TARDIS has always felt uncomfortable — like a place that was never meant for people to really live there. Which makes sense, since it wasn’t. It’s a formal vessel; Time Lords and all. It’s like a fresh installation of Microsoft Windows. For all its sharp and rough edges, the “coral” TARDIS feels comparably cozy; lived-in. The console is like a crackling fire in a darkened room.

So, well. Instead of treating the discomfort as a problem, run with it. Make it feel safe, but a bit queasy. Overstimulating. The kind of place you would like to get out of as soon as possible.

— yet later became a tedious, dramatically limited, over-lit three-wall set.

It seems to me you could do just about anything with the TARDIS, and make it feel remarkable — and you could do the very same thing, and make it feel like nothing very special at all.

EDIT: I suppose I’m missing an inscrutable use of inscrutable technology…

Tile Comix

  • Reading time:1 min(s) read

It’s the Carcassonne of thematic narrative!

Panel art by David Hellman; concept by Mr Hellman and Dale Beran. Text by a mysterious stranger. It’s the cat’s snazz, chappio!

The Exposition Tyrant

  • Reading time:2 min(s) read

That tutorial in Mirror’s Edge… good grief. After a month with the game, I figured out something that is absolutely basic, yet I never clicked on before.

It’s the leg-tuck maneuver, which I knew was there, but I was led to think its use was limited to getting over really close call leaps, for instance if you’re jumping over barbed wire. It turns out it’s useful for everything. It lets you jump onto platforms more easily: lift up your legs to get more clearance. Places where I kept getting randomly snagged when clamboring around, now I can get past without slowing down.

The tutorial, again, made no effort to explain why this move is important or how it works. It just went, PRESS THIS NOW. NO! DO IT AGAIN! (But first watch this cutscene.) NO, DO IT AGAIN! (But first watch this cutscene.) It was like playing Call of Duty 4.

Ideally you’d be following that girl without any real break in the flow, and you’d have Valve-like “Press LT to tuck your legs” prompts passively pop up in the corner. Then you’d get subtly graded. If you did it wrong, it would say “You’re doing it wrong,” and the girl would explain the theory. “Lift your legs, girl! You gonna get tripped up!” Then she’d keep going. If you felt you needed more practice, you could just replay the tutorial. They could give the option at the end.

If you executed it very well, you’d get some kind of affirmation. Maybe just a “hell yeah!” from the girl. If you did all right, it would be something less exuberent. Or just nothing.

And heck, maybe they could string safety nets between the buildings, for the tutorial? Again, just to keep the flow?