Inspiring Games I Played in 2013

Deadbolt

I have a hard time crying. Out of all the people I know, I cry the least. Even when I want to, I can’t seem to reach that catharsis.

Catharsis. I’m really interested in play being used for communication. Especially between people who are intimate with one another. There is something about play that can internalize frustration, despair, relief.

I played Deadbolt twice, and both times I cried afterwards. It wasn’t a game about crying, rather, extreme tension and exhaling. The play was more in what you didn’t do than the simple actions of telling a secret or giving praise.

It was the mood. I couldn’t say a word most of time. I sat, anticipating what raw memory I’d have to bare, listening to people talk to each other in hushed voices. Both for my ears and none of my business. When I finally got to speak, to detail what neurosis haunts me, my voice is hoarse.

I still carry the game around with me. But it’s a part of Deadbolt that doesn’t have any rules. There are three cards with keys on them in my wallet, and when I remember that they are there, I begin to cry.

Dog Eat Dog

We were a nation in love with horses and festivals. Every year we held our biggest celebration on the day of the horses, feeding them fruit and brushing their manes.

Then they came. The first thing they demanded was putting the horses to work. We didn’t understand. White men with lip hair tried to mount our horses, but they bucked and kicked and ran off to the forests. We would have too, if it weren’t for their guns.

We did all we could to resist. We held festivals every day to avoid working for invaders. We began to worship the sea, pretty rocks, strong gusts of wind. We snuck our children in the forests at night so they didn’t forget about horses.

They put us in rooms to teach us their ways. Our young listened to them more than the horses. And even when they left, we could still feel the roads they paved over our homes.

The Entertainment

There is a man sitting at a bar. He rocks back and forth on the back legs of the stool. A cracked leather wallet stuffed with receipts of art supplies and lattes to write off his taxes peeks out his right, back pocket. There were small icebergs floating on a half-inch of amber liquor in the highball by his knuckles. His cell phone won’t ring. He picks up the glass.

I like the way men sit. The angle of their legs just shy of a right angle, one foot dangling, laces just about to touch the ground. Okay, the way he sits. Lip. Gloss. Smack. I can see him in my compact mirror. The jukebox music is just cheesy enough for small talk. Just say how stiff the Long Islands are here. He’s checking his phone. I rise from my seat.

This is about perspective. Every object is observed from different angles, with different senses, from different heights and distances. You feel like you are moving forward through life but an infinite amount of things are hitting you sideways and upside down. We usually hear of life second-hand, but here we get closer to the chaos of experience, even the parts we don’t know we feel.

Killer Queen Arcade

I am the Queen. My kingdom is the battlefield.

I can hear our enemies. They are tapping and whispering. They jump around and I must kill them.

I admit, I can’t keep track of my children. They yell for my attention, powerless without my intervention. They chirp when they jump, pleading as I dodge dive attacks and horizontal swipes.

One is collecting, other ride a snail, the rest chase the enemy queen. I don’t quite understand the snail. What do we do, mother?

In every battle, there is a sacrifice. My children on the ground floor distract the enemy as I evolve my newly born into warriors. They throw their bodies forward without a concern for their lives, only mine.

Only mine.

Mascarade

I am the Queen. Or am I the Bishop? I’m probably the Bishop.

Life Lesson #1: Fake it ‘til you make it. Most of the time, you’re not 100% sure of who you are. More importantly, it’s who others perceive you to be. That’s how they decide to use you, fear you. Always look more dangerous, more well off than you actually are.

I take their gold.

Life Lesson #2: Embrace change. They always say it’s about the journey, and they’re fuckin’ right. Everyone is clawing to win. People you know, people you don’t. We play a game that doesn’t let everyone win. You must deceive and manipulate your way through. You play by the rules.

I am challenged.

Life Lesson #3: We’re all fighting the same battle. We spend so much time sizing each other up, seeing how she is so much more eloquent, how they have so many friends. People will gang up out of desperation. Others, self-sabotage, because that’s the only thing they see.

I am the Queen.

Microscope

Whether we do it intentionally or not, we are all historians.

Misery Bubblegum

It was the first day back from break in the journalism club at the elite Flight Academy. There were mostly old faces, ready to get their small print paper up and running again. They all had secrets; the newest addition who messed with the computers had a crush on the editor in chief, the managing editor was an android, and the star beat reporter has a history, and propensity, for unethical practices. What they didn’t know is their search for the truth would uncover the biggest secret of their lives.

Flight Academy wasn’t just a prep school that sent a large portion of its graduates to the country’s air force. No. Many of these students were selectively, subtly trained to have superhuman powers, all to go on espionage missions against new, threatening alien forces. The journalism club, eager to break news, stumbled upon what at first looked like a paintball match between upper classmates, but turned out to be a battle of psychic forces.

They didn’t have to get involved. But because the reporter wanted to show up the android, who was doting on their new hacker, who felt terrible guilt for breaking and entering the offices of their administration, they found themselves dead in the middle of war. Can these plucky heroes pull together and use the power of friendship to survive?

Pixel Fireplace

During GDC this year, there was a game exhibit over at SFMOMA. Which means the walls and furniture were perfect geometries. It was a room full of relaxing video games. People were lying down making low humming noises, sitting in tents, meditating.

But there was a TV with chairs surrounding it, and it had the most comforting noise playing. It was that of a campfire. When my eyes saw it, they glazed like they do when you stare at an actual fire. The other people who were there had similar looks. We didn’t really talk, just sat, and watching. Every once in a while, someone would type in a word, and the game would throw that into the fire.

p-o-p-c-o-r-n

m-a-r-s-h-m-a-l-l-o-w

f-i-r-e-c-r-a-c-k-e-r

p-a-p-e-r

Every once in a while, you had to place a log so the fire wouldn’t go out.

l-o-g

I didn’t want to say anything else. And when people saw me, saw the fire, they joined and just sat with me. Sometimes they would throw in something flashy, but mostly would sit, sometimes cuddle. No one asked for more, because this was enough. Us, all facing the same thing, in quiet agreement, was enough.

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

l-o-g

Proteus

the old woman of the sea

queers in love at the end of the world

kiss
please
breathe in
twine
gift
fuck me now
calm you
take
desperate
tell
breathe out
just hold her hand
when she kisses you back
alive
breathe in
hungrily
her breathing
hold

Everything is wiped away.

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Learning Moments in Games 2013

Wow, 2013 feels like both a blur and ancient history. It’s always fun to think about how things change over the course of a year, both yourself and the things that surround you. What was games for Mattie in 2013?

This was the year of speaking and traveling for me! I was invited to speak at 15 different events in 9 different cities in 3 different countries! And those only include the ones I said yes to, there was a lot I had to turn down because of funding and time. I really loved meeting so many people who care about play and games, adding to discourse in their own ways. Despite how tiring it was, I’d do it all again; there’s something about talking to people in person that I crave and Twitter can’t really fill. 2013 was also a year of ambitious projects for me (especially schemes to make me money)! I co-founded a publication and conference, am now an independent critic (not sure if these really exist so much?? I think people are confused when I say it like that), and currently crossing my fingers to hear back from both a design job and Ph.D application. I’ll talk more in detail about all this stuff below.

I think this year I began to really dig into the details of why I care about games and my relationship to them. I am shaping my philosophies, speaking a little more purposefully. This year was laying down the groundwork for expanding past the very claustrophobic corner of criticism in games journalism and carving out my own role. I’m not exactly sure what is to become of me, but if I can keep up with meeting and listening to so many different people, I’m sure I’ll find a place for me.

I know everyone likes lists, so here’s chronological list of highlights for me in 2013. Check out the links for added context:

Would You Kindly
This piece was important to me in my growth of writing criticism. In hindsight, that this was the first thing to happen to be me 2013 proved to be a sign of my changing relationship with games criticism, development, and social justice. It set the tone more than I thought, only now that I reflect do I see it was a natural progression of sorts. More than the writing was the response to my piece where I learned my lesson. One person wrote a response criticising my use of personal experience and identity politics. This would cause about a week-long twitter storm in my timeline that I would barely be a part of. People usually associated with activism were vocally damning of the author (rightfully so, though not the way I would have liked it) and there were critics and readers who have been quietly uncomfortable with how much social justice was leaking into games criticism. It turned into a lot of finger-pointing, burned bridges, all that fun stuff.

Though I have seen some rough events before, this is when I started to really think on how we handle ourselves on social media. Everyone is ultimately afraid of one another, and there’s a weird tension of being so far apart but constantly in each other’s presence. If I cared about that person, trying to communicate meaningful over twitter just didn’t seem to be the right idea while also being public. I started having more private conversations, with friends and people I’ve disagreed with, and I found that they are always preferable. Social media is for tackling the big entities that are inaccessible through conversation, not individuals.

Pokemon: Unchained
I’m not exactly sure where I got this idea from. I somehow found out about the Nuzlocke Challenge for Pokemon, and I think I saw Django: Unchained recently. Obviously these two things relate! It was super fun journaling this, mostly because I think Pokemon fans were mortified how creepy Black & White were. It was weird, I think the challenge was strangely effective at making me feel like I was a monster for playing Pokemon. It was oddly compelling because of it’s brutality, not sure what that says about me.

What I liked was how much a lot of people, those who follow my work and didn’t, enjoyed me appropriating pop culture for artistic purposes. Especially with what games are going through right now, I expected anger, which there was a bit of dismissiveness, but far outweighed by interesting. It also showed me that I don’t interact with pop culture nearly as much as I should to feel connected to the rest of the world, and I should look for more paths to connecting with broader audiences that doesn’t compromise my more creative goals.

#lostlevels
You think it wouldn’t be a big deal to set up some blankets in a park for people to speak 5 minutes about their random sometimes game related thoughts, but it is a monumental task. Even with the threat of ostracization from GDC, #lostlevels created a space for anyone to participate, even if they couldn’t afford passes that were hundreds or thousands of dollars. It is an attempt to offset the problems that come with a for-profit event organizing the most central games conference.

What struck me in particular was how, when an event was free and encouraged participation from anyone interested, horizontal things felt. Someone who isn’t really involved with games but had some interesting thoughts were talking casually with solo rockstar developers and New York academics. I knew we needed more things like this, more spaces for people to talk and share without the barriers to entry. I never did an unconference before, and I find it a great format to encourage speaking from many different people.

Triptychs
After GDC, there was what is now called the ‘Formalist vs Zinester’ clash, which is a misnomer since no one identifies as a Zinester. The age-old ‘what is a game’ argument, why that question is and isn’t useful. It changed the tone of some public academic discourse, which now ‘allowed’ people to talk about social justice topics in tandem with game design theory. Overall, there is a bunch of questions blown open: why do we need to designate what a good game is? Why do we need systems in games? What do we do about the homogeneity in games academia?

Personally, I found that many people are curious about difference and don’t know how to really approach someone appropriately to talk to others. I’m a person that has a high tolerance for people apparently, and ended up having a lot of personal conversations (learned from earlier in the year) to bridge build. My conclusion? There is a distinct aesthetic shift that is discarding most of the values set up by the last decade or so of games.

Different Games
First time to New York City, first time to a conference explicitly about diversity in games. Different Games made an active effort to move past usual topics like representation that you would see at other conferences and look at what problems we see in games that sink deeper into how we talk about games, how we deploy their rhetoric in non-games spaces, etc. It also provided workshops and breakouts as much as it did talks, which, while simple, really impressed me with how much I wanted to do something else but listen to people talk, and I’m a person who can stand academic conventions (at times).

It’s Different Games that is starting me down a journey that will be okay just going to events on the periphery instead of big monoculture ones. I wanted to organize something like #lostlevels but was too scared that I’d be barred from GDC if I did. I felt like I’d be kept out of games culture. And while there are other events out there doing interesting things, it was this one that turned that lightbulb on for me. There needs to be more local conferences and grassroots initiatives. We can’t expect to get anywhere if we rely on these bigger events waiting for a chance to speak.

re/Action
Weirdly enough, I can say I was the editor-in-chief of a publication. I had spent a year putting together literary journals and decided I wanted to try my hand at putting out another solution for supporting games criticism. Including back-end stuff, it was about a five-month ordeal that I learned a lot about managing people, editing work, and ideology behind running a potential business. To say the least, I got to interface with a lot of practical application of activist ideals.

I failed in public. It was really difficult to see a project I put a lot of time and energy into just really crumble and fail. But, I wouldn’t have found out a lot of things about myself and the community surrounding games criticism if it wasn’t for re/Action. In a sense, it’s a hopelessly lone wolf environment, and it’s usually the poor who help the poor. In that sense, it opened the door for me to try out being independently supported, but that’s not a good enough solution. I became a little more aware of my impact inside and outside the community.

EAT & Mission
Moving away from the digital, I looked to ARGs of my past to create new experiences for communication and expression. I wanted to prove to myself that game design was game design, and I didn’t have a fluke good thought with video games. ARGs use play to augment your life and has a stronger chance of having people internalize the experience, especially because video games are mostly constrained by controllers and digital competency. If you will, your life, you self is the controller in EAT and Mission.

I’m glad to be broadening out my creative expression, because I feel like we often constrain ourselves to one thing. I didn’t want to be a person who could only express feelings through writing and speech, I wanted something else. I also wanted to find new ways of bringing meaningful play to people who are marginalized and kept out. I want to challenge how we engage in activism through play. This got me interested in pursuing my education in games, so this is definitely still in progress.

GCAP
GCAP is the main, annual conference of the Australian games industry, and was an intense conference for me. For one, it was my first trip outside of the US, and that it was to speak at a conference is more than I could have after thought possible for me. I got to talk about what was important to me, and see a lot of colleagues from online which solidified a little more a feeling of belonging.

There aren’t many times when an aspect of my privilege is made very clear to me. Living on the west coast of America is making access a lot easier for me in the games industry and community overall. There are publications, companies, and schools here. At GCAP, I heard a lot of stories about how a lot of American companies moved out of Australia and devastated their industry, and how they survived and gained back some ground. I came in with a lot of preconceptions, especially around my understanding of what the indie scene is here in America and how it’s different there. I really want to push international efforts more in the events I do.

QGCon
Probably the biggest event of my year, I helped coordinate the Queerness and Games Conference where we gathered a bunch of interesting people to talk about how queerness and games intersect. It was a grand experiment, as a free event, with a generous mix of academics, developers, and fans about deeper topics than we normally talk about. That it was a success really makes me smile, I should think of this more.

I learned more than I could ever list here, but that it was possible to have all the things I wanted in an event happen. To be a working safe space, with multiple kinds of engagement, accessible, a mix of different skills and perspectives. It was really cool seeing the inner workings of a conference and how to make my ideals a practical reality. It also showed me how important (as I’ve said in the past) that we have more local functions, and now that I realize it’s not as impossible to do (though still very hard) I want to work on making organizing conferences more accessible to others.

The Death of the Player
This piece is an accumulation of creative work, conversation, and my own thoughts of how my home base in creative writing could teach games and play. Overall, I talk about the meaningful use of iteration and non-iteration as creative tools, and how the recent, personal experience-focused games challenge game design conventions and common knowledge. Playtesting tends to prioritize player agency within our work, and that brings in a lot of politics, especially autobiographical in the works of minorities.

This is a bit of a grand note to end on, but this year really helped me shed off a lot of preconceptions about game design and let me make room for myself. There is more we as individuals have to bring to games at this point than the other way around. We need people outside of games, outside of the industry and schools to be crafting and thinking about play. So I’ve been thinking about who I am outside of games and what I can bring to the table, and I hope 2014 is my attempt to do that.

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Those Games Left Off of the “Game of the Year” Lists

“Game of the Year” lists. Everybody’s got one, and they all tend to look the same. This year’s blockbuster hits, sequels to long-standing series, new projects created by popular development teams. After some reflection, I realized there were many gaming experiences that I excluded from my own list because I had some presuppositions of what “should” be on such a list. We expect high profile games that cost us $60, typically rewarding games that improve a formula instead of taking risks. If the recent presence of the indie development scene tells us anything, it’s that high end production and price tags aren’t necessary for making a successful game. What about the free games or the extremely niche titles? I decided to put together a small list in the spirit of rewarding some 2011 games that are unlikely to be featured elsewhere but deserve recognition for the risk taking that they took to advance the medium.

Don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story by Christine Love

Visual novels are about as niche as digital media comes; very few genres suffer the stigma that they do. Many don’t see them as games or find the strong influence of anime fandom to be off putting. Needless to say, the market for visual novels outside of Japan is sparse, making the decision to create one a unique decision in itself. Don’t take it personally, babe… tackles many social issues and presents them within internet culture. It comments on how the internet influences our lives, while also managing the melodrama of teenagers exploring their identities. This is probably the first time that I’ve seen a gay couple treated with maturity in a game, and there’s two here!

To the Moon by Freebird Games

For a game cited as having made so many people cry, it’s a surprise that To the Moon is rarely discussed outside of indie-focused publications. The writing in the game is some of the best this year, balancing humor alongside serious moments. Music is also a very powerful aspect of the game’s aesthetic, as you move through a dying man’s memories to make his wish come true. Be prepared, most of the game is meant to make you think, reflect, and reevaluate your humanity, not to present you with detached puzzles to solve and strategies to formulate. Most people overlook games that appear to have been created by something like RPG Maker, but To the Moon proves you don’t have to have the resources of a AAA studio to make an emotionally compelling game.

TRAUMA by Krystian Majewski

Many hesitate to call TRAUMA a game but that might be a part of what makes it special. It is reminiscent of adventure games that focus on exploration of an environment. The scenes in the game depict a woman’s struggles after an accident, prompting the player to treat their exploration of the game as a process of working through psychological distress. Interactivity and discovery are key to TRAUMA, reaching beyond the game level and into the thematic vein of the narrative. On a first run through, the player might feel like they are clicking through pictures, but once the act of exploring is tied to sorting through emotions and uncomfortable feelings, the game takes on a powerful meaning.

Sweatshop by Littleloud

How often do you see a flash game on a “top games of the year” list? Sweatshop is part tower defense, part adorable, and part socially aware. One of the main critiques of the idea of “games as art” is their lack of relevance to current events and real-life problems. These kinds of games are a tough sell to players that want their games to be mostly about fun, but Sweatshop gets it right. Its version of a tower defense games actually helps the player gain empathy for the workers being exploited through free trade agreements, speaking through both the mechanics and the intermission screens that are filled with fun facts. It’s a game that handles a serious, current problem well without lecturing the player, which is much more than most AAA games can claim.

Choice of Intrigues by Choice of Games

A sequel to a romantic, political, dramatic Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired stat-building game? Yes, please! Choice of Intrigues continues the great writing and character drama found in its predecessor, Choice of Romance but raises the stakes as you defend your reputation and the power that you have established. With a boom of interest surrounding the romance systems of later additions to the Persona series and BioWare games, it’s nice to have a game that focuses mostly on relationships and explores these topics and problems from a design level. This series is a continuation of Choice of Games’s attempt to create games that are inclusive by allowing relationships between any gender and managing details of the story world expertly, so that it makes sense in their fantasy setting.

Most of the games on this list are free and the priciest is under $12. They aren’t multiplayer and probably won’t be featured on major gaming sites but that doesn’t discount their successes. Here’s to including more than big budget games in 2012!

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