Category Archives: videogaming

Articles about electronic games

My Turn in the GAMBIT Looking Glass interview series.

The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab’s Matthew Weise has been conducting a podcast series interviewing various alumni of Looking Glass Studios. The first two episodes featured Austin Grossman (author of Soon I Will Be Invincible) and Harmonix’s Dan Schmidt. Episode 3 is Laura Baldwin and myself, along with GAMBIT’s Sara Verrilli.

The conversation mostly centers on the Thief series, as the project we three shared. But really, we talked and talked, so the topics are all over the map.

Defense of the Oasis Released for iPad

Oasis is a crackerjack little game by my friends at Mind Control Software. The original version took home an Independent Games Festival grand prize a few years back, and I always thought it deserved wider attention. Hopefully, an all-new iPad version of the game, titled Defense of the Oasis to avoid search confusion with the English rock band, will help with that.

Defense of the Oasis screenshot

Full disclosure: I have a scenario design credit in the game, for helping to brainstorm the “Plagues of Egypt” campaign.

Final Day at LookingGlass

It’s been just over 10 years since LookingGlass Studios went out of business, and I lost my first job in the game industry. My coworker Mike Chrzanowski (two-time coworker, actually, since he’s now at Vicarious Visions) videotaped the last day of business, and has just put it up on YouTube.

I can’t help but have a mixture of reactions, of course. I thought at the time that it was odd (and Mike is very often odd, usually in a good way), but I sure am glad now that he did it. Memory is such a hazy thing, and it’s good to see all of this again.

I don’t even remember helping to come up with that puzzle that Marc Leblanc mentions, the one where you have to take the severed head to the retina scanner. I always thought that puzzle was awfully clever, and now I know why!

I’m pretty sure that’s me in the background audio of Steve Pearsall’s shot, talking about how the then-unreleased Deus Ex was going. I’d just recently taken a week’s vacation down in Austin, and had spent some time visiting Ion Storm and giving them comments on the game. Hence my “Special Thanks” appearance in the game credits.

I was so damn young! I was so happy, even with what was going on, just to have shared it with people I liked and respected so well.

Environmental Storytelling and Emergence

One of the highlights of this year’s Game Developer’s Conference was Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch’s talk, “What Happened Here: Environmental Storytelling.” There’s not much point in my going into great detail about what they said, because they have posted extremely thorough slides and lecture notes. Suffice it to say, the talk is about the way that set-dressing choices provide a parallel narrative channel, which is powerful in the way that it invites acts of interpretation from the player, at his own pace.

First, as an aside, I seem to not be the only one interested in this topic, as Emily Short (I think it was) drew comparisons between this player experience and Interactive Fiction at the IF panel at PAX East. Many people don’t seem to even realize that games have storytelling methods available to the designer other than non-interactive cutscenes, so this is a topic I was very happy to see getting some attention.

The really thought-provoking part of the talk for me, though, was what the presenters called “Systemic Environmental Storytelling.” Continue reading Environmental Storytelling and Emergence

What Kind of Scroll, Now?

Now for my thoughts about Dungeon Scroll vs. Bookworm Adventures.

When Dungeon Scroll was first pointed out to me, it was with the assessment that Bookworm Adventures was “basically a polished version of Dungeon Scroll.” On the one hand, this is not an unfair summary. On the other, Bookworm Adventures really adds elements that I think are critical to delivering on the Dungeon Scroll concept, so it’s putting a heavy burden on the word “polish.”

See, the thing is, the whole concept is that you’re having a dungeon-delving adventure of some sort, where you defeat monsters by spelling words. Okay.

But Dungeon Scroll doesn’t feel like a dungeon/spelling game. It just feels like a spelling game. To an outside observer it probably looks like a dungeon/spelling game, but this is really lost on me as a player in a way that really isn’t the case at all in Bookworm Adventures. So, why is that?

The single most critical thing that Bookworm Adventures does to deliver on this concept is not, in fact, the superior animation, variety of monsters, addition of a narrative framework, inclusion of debilitating status ailments, or addition of magical treasure inventory. All of those Dungeons & Dragons tropes are important, to be sure. But that’s not the key thing.

The key thing is that Dungeon Scroll is “real time” (in the videogame parlance sense that means that the action happens continuously) and Bookworm Adventures is turn-based.

In Dungeon Scroll, you almost never even look at the little animated fantasy monster in the corner of your screen, because you’re too busy looking at the letters. If you’re not looking at the letters, you’re not spelling words, and if you’re not spelling words, you’re being punished. You are punished for paying attention to the very thing that’s supposed to be the game’s distinctive hook.

In Bookworm Adventures, conversely, when there’s something going on onscreen, you’re allowed to look at it. In fact, you can’t spell things during the monster’s turn, so you might as well sit back and enjoy the animation of it attacking you.

This isn’t a problem with a straight-up fantasy adventure game, because the action is happening in the same place as the fantasy is being presented. So those games can be “real-time” or turn-based, at the designer’s option. But the tile field in these dungeon/spelling games pulls your eye away from the fantasy adventure elements of the game, so in order to deliver on their concept they need to allow your eye the opportunity to pull back.

Ultimately, I don’t think the most important thing that Bookworm Adventures brings to the table is any of the production and gameplay embellishments that one normally thinks of as “polish.” It’s a change in the gameplay fundamentals, without which all the fantasy trappings you care to ladle on are terribly undermined.

So, I think that’s pretty interesting.

Curious Production Value Lapses

So, having had it pointed out to me that Bookworm Adventure is basically a polished version of IGF finalist Dungeon Scroll, I resolved to check out the latter.

Not going to get into my thoughts about the two games relative to each other, except to note that it’s curious, while playing a spelling game, to see it suffer from spelling errors. For example, “pickup” used as a verb, or “hampster” used as … well, anything, really, but one presumes that what was intended was “hamster.” You’d think there’d be a presumption that your audience cared about such things more than typically.