Jetpack Joust Plays: Kentucky Route Zero

We’ve been slowly making our way through the phenomenal experimental adventure game Kentucky Route Zero; releasing videos almost at the same pace as Cardboard Computer releases new installments to the story. But we are so enraptured by the strange trans-dimensional bypass that we can’t help but push on. This is a collection of our longest running “Let’s Play” – that will be updated over time – allowing you to relive this ethereal experience.

Kentucky Route Zero is the tale of Conway, an aging truck driver attempting to deliver some goods to an antique shop in central Kentucky. Unfortunately, the road he must go down is one of bizarre characters and even more bizarre locales. This will be a night that the old man never forgets.

You can find Kentucky Route Zero here.

Episode One: Equus Oils

Episode Two: Meeting Marques

Episode Three: The Coal Mine

Episode Four: The Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces

Episode Five: Is it an Office or a Cathedral?

Episode Six: The Museum of Dwellings

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The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Platformer

For gamers of my generation, the foundation stone of our experience is Super Mario Bros. It represented the literal rebirth of the video game industry and charmed its way into our hearts with its addictive gameplay, infectious music, and charismatic lead character. With the stellar success of the Italian plumber, Nintendo continued to pump out games with similar mechanics: Kid Icarus, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventures, The Legend of Zelda II. Soon, this increasingly populated genre became known as the platformer; representative of its characteristic run-and-jump mechanics. While the platformer had technically existed for nearly a decade beforehand – with chief examples including Donkey Kong, Load Runner, and Pitfall – Nintendo chose to focus on side-scrolling adventures as one of their core formats on the NES.

An entire age group was raised on this broad, inventive style of gameplay. Nintendo’s success quickly spread to other companies. The Sega Genesis brought us Sonic the Hedgehog and Kid Chameleon. Rayman and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night came to Sony’s Playstation. Then, platforming took a leap into the third-dimension with Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. Apart from the scrolling camera, item collection, and run-and-jump reaction time; these games were known for their diversity of content. Duck Tales was a relatively peaceful cartoon journey. Metroid was an elaborately constructed space opera with multi-tiered level design. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an action-packed beat-‘em-up with a difficulty that would make anyone tear their hair out in frustration. This variety brought on what many would consider the golden age of gaming; a burst of creativity and innovation that has rarely been matched.

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But the third-dimension was ultimately the downfall of the classic platformer. With first-person shooters and gorgeously rendered roleplaying games allowing for ever-deeper immersion, the clarion call from consumers was for realism. The market drifted away from the beloved genre and by the year 2000 platformers represented only two-percent of industry output. Developers and publishers saw that the sidescroller could no longer sell the kind of units necessary to compel the bulging budgets of modern Triple-A experiences and as such they mostly disappeared.

Rare attempts to reinvigorate the genre were often hailed by critics, but rejected by the audience. For a time, the only company capable of producing financially successful platformers was Nintendo; whose continued investment in Mario helped to keep them from fading away entirely.

Still, there was a hardcore group of fans that stoked the fires for the return of the genre and this momentum was ultimately timed perfectly with the rise of the indie game. The technological limitations of working with a small team of designers leant itself to simpler styles of gameplay. Indies could work within the boundaries of a classic platformer relatively easily, while bringing a unique and modern sensibility to the design. Simultaneously, services like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade began to see the potential in smaller, cheaper games that could be distributed via their digital platforms. Pac-Man Championship Edition and Geometry Wars had been massive hits and the industry began looking for new sources of games of this size.

While the resurrection of the 2d side-scrolling platformer can probably be traced back all the way to Behemoth’s Alien Hominid in 2004; the real explosion of content started with Braid in the summer of 2008. Braid was an impeccably beautiful game with deeply emotional overtones, but its popularity was fanned by its intriguing approach to traditional mechanics. Each stage introduced a new way to easily manipulate time-and-space and the player could use these new-found powers to solve increasingly elaborate puzzles. Early on, players could simply reverse time to correct the mistakes they had made, but additional mechanics brought on new challenges and solutions; forcing the them to look at the world with a new perspective. Braid revolutionized the platformer, proving that slow, contemplative puzzling could dazzle the eyes and the intellect of players; while also turning a major profit. Many independent studios were influenced by the game’s cerebral approach.

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But one week later, Bionic Commando: ReArmed continued the trend. Originally designed as a companion piece to the three-dimensional reimagining of the NES classic Bionic Commando, ReArmed was essentially an enhanced release of the first game. No one expected that the sidescroller would garner intensely positive critical reviews and sell more than 100,000 copies in its first week. Bionic Commando: ReArmed stood in stark contrast to the artistic and pensive Braid; instead offering a balls-to-the-wall action platformer that perfected aging gameplay techniques. Published by Capcom, the game was a very persuasive argument for Triple-A developers to take a second glance at the genre. Soon, many classic franchises reappeared in downloadable formats: from Sonic the Hedgehog to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Duck Tales.

However, despite the influx of major gaming powerhouses, the independents continued to dominate much of the steadily growing market for platformers. Larger studios were less apt to take the kinds of creative risks that indies thrived on. Super Meat Boy became infamous for its old school approach to difficulty, forcing players to truly learn the levels before they could conquer them. Limbo applied a sinister black-and-white art design that enhanced eerie and brutal puzzles. Fez built an elaborate world with nary an enemy in sight, instead focusing on the joy of exploration and discovery. By the 2010s, indie studios were creating countless compelling experiences. The revitalization was in full bloom.

At this point, the platformer is the opposite of a stale stylistic choice. It’s as relevant as it is ground-breaking and enthralling. In fact, entire subgenres have emerged to help categorize its exponential growth; such as the “Metroidvania” and the “Endless Runner”. Just in the last year, we’ve seen Shovel Knight, 1001 Spikes, Battleblock Theater, Mercenary Kings, Escape Goat 2, and dozens of other platformers find their way into the hands of gamers.

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It’s important to note that much of this success can be contributed to nostalgia. Gamers who have grown with the medium have very vivid memories of these kinds of experiences. Platformers bring us back to our childhood. But this isn’t nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake; it’s a reawakening of a specific sensibility. What is old is new again. Platformers have seen more innovation in the last five years than they did in the twenty years previous – barring perhaps the 3D revolution. It’s a rare case of nostalgia pushing a genre forward into a welcoming future.

Platformers also offer a distinctive lack of realism. The format is simply too abstract. Instead of constructing refined textures and powerful lighting tools, developers are able to delve into unique art design and inventive gameplay techniques; the core elements that have always made for great games. Thus, platformers aren’t forced into any particular box. They are the perfect format for intuitive experimentation. For example, Braid made tweaks to the genre by allowing for the manipulation of time-and-space, but embraced the tropes that anyone whose played Super Mario Bros can relate to. It was a clash of the new and the familiar that led to a grand reception by its audience.

But visual flavoring is equally possible and just as varied. Braid is like an expressionist painting come to life. Rogue Legacy is a powerful tribute to the 8-bit legacy of Nintendo. Cuphead could’ve played in a theater with Max Fleischer’s cartoons of the 1930’s. As the “Games as Art” argument has grown in voracity, platformers have become a key battleground. They are an empty canvas left to be filled with the imagination of their creators. As such, many of the most aesthetically beautifulgames are sidescrolling adventures. When combined with the aforementioned mechanics, this is a potently charismatic combination.  

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There was an unfortunate time when gamers had to search deeply for new platforming experiences. They just didn’t exist. But now, we get a new one almost every week. In fact, the market may be beginning to flood. This could potentially lead to another crash, but it’s just as likely that the platformer will continue to be the prime choice for indie developers. New memories are being made by a new generation and their nostalgia will be as great as ours.

 

The future is bright for all games, but especially for the platformer. It has seen its share of ebbs-and-flows, but the faithful will always return. And as long as there’s Nintendo, we’ll always have Mario, Kirby, Yoshi, Donkey Kong, and Metroid. We’ll always have the compelling simplicity of running and jumping.

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Player Advice: Getting into Character

There are two important social elements to every roleplaying game: the Gamemaster, whom frames the situations that allow for narrative, and the players, whom push the story along with their actions. The Gamemaster is the subject of an awful lot of advice columns; important tools for a job that requires constant inspiration and innovation. But players are often left out in the cold. They have to learn the art of roleplaying through trial and error. This isn’t entirely fair. After all, the players – in theory – are the true storytellers, the catalysts for conflict and progression.

However, despite stereotypes to the contrary, not everyone who plays in a tabletop RPG has a flair for the dramatic. Some are thrilled by the tactical combat. Others take a more passive route, preferring to observe the world of the story instead of directly engage with it. Not everyone is instantly capable of method acting their way through the first few sessions. Yet, one of the most frequently asked questions by new GMs is: “How do I get my players to roleplay?” Even if it’s not the primary draw for every player, roleplaying enhances the experience of everyone at the table. It’s a skill that can be learned.

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Gamemasters: The best way to get your players to roleplay is to provide an open and comfortable environment that will allow them to explore the ideas they have for their characters. A well-told and interactive story will work wonders as well. But this article isn’t about you.

Players: Roleplaying doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It can be strange to inhabit the mind of someone who is not yourself, especially if you don’t have any acting experience. Luckily, you don’t have to be Robert DeNiro to play Dungeons & Dragons. RPGs do require a significant degree of improvisation, but you don’t have to be intimidated by the openness of this style of gaming. In fact, it should be freeing, allowing you the powerful opportunity to flex the muscles of your imagination. Remember, you’re not in front of an audience of strangers, you’re with friends and together you can tell one hell of a tale.

Here are four techniques that you can implement to become a better roleplayer.

1. Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

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What does your character want? Why does he want it? These are the two most important questions you can ask, because they will propel every action you’ll make in your game. Motivation is the stepping stone to defining your character’s personality, but more importantly, it informs her decision-making. You can easily ask yourself: “Does this get me closer to or further away from my goal?” when making world-shaking choices. This is especially useful when your motivation directly conflicts with that of the party or another player, adding flavorful (if contentious) layers to the relationship between your characters.

It’s important that youcreate your own impetus, because it will personally involve you in the creation of the story. If your motivation is revenge, you can establish the NPC who will be the victim of your wrath, and the Gamemaster will have a new means to grab your attention. Every time a clue is revealed to lead you to the offender, you’ll instantly have an easier time roleplaying because it will be a seed that you planted. Motivation is an implement of immersion and the simplest way to start your journey into deeper roleplaying. It can also change over the course of the game as you react to new plot hooks and evolve your avatar.

Background is the cousin of motivation, as they often directly relate. If you ascertain that your character’s parents were killed by a violent gang lord, the next logical step is to build upon that idea by attempting to claim vengeance; as discussed above. Similarly, if you know that you want to be motivated by revenge, you’d have to contribute that feature to your background. The inspiration can work in both directions. While not every character requires a novella-length back-story, it will help if you have a solid idea of your history that you can recall throughout the game. This lends an element of surprise, as parts of your past could creep up to find you at any given moment.

If you start with motivation and background, I guarantee that you’ll see an immediate improvement in your roleplaying.

2. Think Like Your Character

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There are moments during any game session when things slow down for your character and others’ take the lead. Obviously, roleplaying is collaborative and your friends should be allowed their time to shine, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attempt to remain in character. In the real world, your inner life is just as important as any actions you take. That should be reflected in the game.

Let’s look at an example: As you are being lead down a long, dark central corridor of a dilapidated ruin, how are you feeling? Perhaps you are scared out-of-your-mind, but feigning strength to support the other party members. Perhaps you are reminded of the times you spent exploring the catacombs beneath your hometown as a child. This isn’t anything that any other player ever has to know about, but it’s a way to personalize the game for yourself. Even if the Gamemaster hasn’t specifically described a function of the setting, try to use all of your senses: the corridor smells like mold and stale air. You can feel the uneven stone beneath your feet. You can taste the moisture on your tongue. These small details will bring the whole ordeal to life and create a more vivid mental experience. When the time comes to take back the reigns, you’ll still be deeply involved in the story.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most human beings are judgmental creatures. We might not speak out with all of our opinions, but we certainly have them. As such, you should constantly be judging the decisions and behavior of the other characters in your party and the significant NPCs in your campaign. The results don’t have to be negative, but they should be honest. If you are disgusted by aberrant creatures, you would likely react as such when you meet an Illithid shopkeeper. If you are passionate about a good sponge-cake, you’ll likely fall in love with the barmaid who makes the best in town.

Inhabiting your character to the point of thinking like them can take some practice, but can truly add to your perception of the game.

3. Challenge Your Gamemaster

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Don’t be afraid to challenge the storytelling abilities of your Gamemaster. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. If it’s logical for your character to make a drastic plot-based U-turn, then do it. Good roleplaying should keep a GM on her toes. They’ll say it’s annoying. They’ll be frustrated by your boldness. They’ll be forced to stop railroading and follow the path of the players, which might mean some hasty improvisation. But ultimately, the Gamemaster is there to facilitate you and your entertainment. Don’t be a jerk, but do take the time to nudge the GM in your direction, because it’s within your rights as a player.

But how can you do this? The first step is to not be intimidated by the idea of fulfilling your characters full potential. Too many people don’t want to speak up about their character as an individual. They let them fall into a specific role in the group and work as an agent of the collective. However, you should remember that in your version of the story, you are the protagonist. It’s okay to make selfish choices occasionally, although they should be made sparingly as not to offend the friends you play with. The rule of thumb should always be: “Does this make sense in the context of my character’s personality, background, and motivation?”

If you don’t feel as though the game is engaging enough for you, it’s as much your duty as the Gamemaster’s to fix that problem. Introduce conflict. Follow a dangling plot hook that interests you. Cause some entertaining trouble. You’ll know if you’ve gone too far, because the group will let you know. They’ll shoot you some seriously evil looks. But if done in the spirit of fun, your Gamemaster will appreciate the challenge and it may take the story in exciting directions that it wouldn’t have gone in otherwise.

4. Leave the Tech at Home

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Lastly – and this should be a sensible piece of advice – don’t bring your cell phone or your laptop or your tablet to the table, unless you’re using them for gaming purposes. Don’t text. Don’t browse the web. Don’t play mobile games. These are distractions and could be key to why you feel uncomfortable roleplaying. After all, you don’t feel like you have to roleplay if you are busy checking your e-mail.

This can be a bit of a harsh rule for some groups. We’re so used to be connected that we hate to disconnect. But the real joy of roleplaying games is being present and social in the moment. The people at the table are far more important than ninety-five percent of what you’ll be doing on your device and if you’re feeling bored; you should really be honest with your Gamemaster. Let them know so they can do something about it.

The fact of the matter is: you can’t roleplay effectively if you’re not paying attention. You’ll lose pieces of the information that you need to participate in the storyline. Do yourself a courtesy and try to turn it off for the few hours you’ll be playing. I guarantee you’ll see an upswing in your roleplaying and the amount of enjoyment you get from playing the game.

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RPG in Focus (Preview): The Strange

Not every gaming group wants to hack their way through dungeons and slash their way through dragons. Too often, the entirety of the tabletop roleplaying hobby gets co-opted by its most famous and successful franchise. But fantasy is only one of the genres explored by gamers. RPGs allow players to expand the bounds of their imagination, telling stories of every style and type. This is “RPG in Focus”.

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Numenera has been a bountiful success for Monte Cook Games; a bold and innovative tabletop RPG that transformed a small crowd-funded company into one of the pre-eminent publishers of the genre. The collection of mechanics behind the game – known as the Cypher System – is regarded by fans as effortless and elegant. It’s relatively simple to teach to new players, but surprisingly deep as you delve into its complex inner- workings. But Numenera’s greatest contribution to the modern RPG scene is its intense spotlight on storytelling. For the most part, the rules get out of the way and allow players to engage in thrilling collaborative narratives.

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However, despite the infinite possibilities of its setting, Numenera is built upon a specific foundation of science-fantasy. The Ninth World is brilliant and original, but it’s only one world. The Strange rectifies this quandary, opening up the Cypher System to a vast universe of genres, styles, and ideas.

The Strange is a collaboration between Monte Cook and his good friend and famed game designer Bruce Cordell (2nd, 3rd, and 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons). Kickstarted in late 2013, the RPG is set to release this August, but buzz from the community is already palpable. This excitement is founded upon the clever concept at the core of The Strange’s gameplay: that the dark energy that makes up our universe is actually the remnants of an alien computer network. This ancient internet is filled with endless and intangible worlds that have been sprouted from the imagination of sentient creatures. All of the collective stories that we’ve told throughout human history have found a home there, a home in The Strange.

These worlds are called Recursions and though they have remained hidden from the people of Earth, they are perfectly capable of interacting with our reality. There exists a number of secret societies made-up of scientists and businessmen that hope to take advantage of The Strange’s boon of resources; but their tampering has opened a portal to unknown threats. Now, the Recursions are aware of Earth and unfortunately, some of their residents are jealous and wrathful. As such, the game can easily be set in a mirror of our modern world, fueled by dark conspiracies and hidden heroes.

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But The Strange Core Rulebook also elaborates on two prominent Recursions located just beyond our perceptions. Ardeyn is a mystical world where sorcerers battle powerful demons, hoping to intercept them before they arrive on Earth. Ruk is an alien land of horrifying monsters, born long before man evolved, powered by advanced technologies and biological enhancement. Luckily, the Game Master is only limited by her imagination and any of her own creations can become a valid, canonical Recursion. The Strange is a world-builders dream, as every session can take place in a new elaborate setting, each more bizarre than the last.

Travelling between Recursions is a process known as Translation, which doubles as a gameplay mechanic to distinguish The Strange from Numenera. In the empty space between worlds, characters must assume new forms, so as not to disturb the inherent rules of each Recursion. This prevents a blaster rifle from crossing over into a medieval setting or a magical scroll from invading a planet based in hard-science. Thus, players are forced to make major changes to their equipment and powers in order to survive this transition, giving each character a chance to evolve with every subsequent destination on their route.

The Cypher System is already known for its inventive take on character creation and progression. The Translation process is only an interesting addition to a stellar mechanic. As in Numenera, players build their characters by writing a simple sentence: “I am a (adjective)(noun) who (verb)s.”

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In The Strange, the “noun” is referred to as a Type of which there are three to choose from: the Vector, the Paradox, and the Spinner. A Vector is the muscle of a gaming party, the most physically adept member of the group. They can wield massive weapons and mighty armor, but are truly meant to induce action and excitement. The Paradox is a rule-breaker who bends reality to his whim. Like a sorcerer or magician, this player can do the impossible. A Spinner is a fusion of the two previous types, a jack-of-all-trades who can swindle, persuade, bluff, and charm her way out of trouble.

The “adjective” is known as a Descriptor, a means to describe the character’s personality and abilities. A Skeptical Vector might be more perceptive because of her extreme attention to detail. A Fast Spinner might be able to escape a band of marauders without much effort. However, the Descriptor goes beyond gameplay capabilities and helps a player to truly inhabit her character.

Lastly, the “verb” is called a Focus, the ability or quality that makes the character special. In Numenera, the Focus is typically permanent; but in The Strange, players might take on new Foci based on their current Recursion. On Earth, you might portray a Fast Paradox who is Licensed to Carry, while on Ruk you could inhabit a Fast Paradox who Metamorphosizes. Again, these shifts allow players to try on new talents and powers that they’d have to earn in other systems. The Strange encourages and rewards character experimentation.

Once the player has constructed a sentence and selected from a few other options – such as equipment, stat pools, etc – they are ready to play. Character creation in the Cypher System is relatively minimalistic, but the sheer variety of choices immediately engages the imagination. Players quickly become connected to their roles and The Strange drops them into a practically infinite setting that they can explore at their own pace.

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Monte Cook Games is still a young publisher, but it has already proven its ability to innovate and inspire. The Strange doesn’t hit bookstores until late August, but the game has managed to build a huge following. Perhaps it’s because of the openness of the Recursion concept or because of a hunger for more products using the Cypher System; but it’s difficult not to be swept away by the excitement surrounding The Strange. Still, we’ll have to reserve our final judgment until the game’s release date, waiting patiently for our journey to Ardeyn, Ruk, and beyond. But at this point, if there are two game designers that I trust to arouse my roleplaying sensibilities; it’s Monte Cook and Bruce Cordell.

Can I Kick It? Ep. 9 – We Are The Dwarves, Athlas, After Reset, and Speakeasy

In the newest episode of “Can I Kick It?”, we take a look at four excellent games: We Are The Dwarves (An Isometric Tactical RPG), Athlas – Duel for Divinity (A Unit-Building Board Game), After Reset (A Post-Apocalyptic RPG), and Speakeasy (A Mob vs FBI Party Game). We also take a glance at a personal recommendation: the Learnt Podcast. 

The Projects:

We are the Dwarves:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/whalestudio/we-are-the-dwarves?ref=nav_search

Athlas – Duel for Divinity:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/451575426/athlas-duel-for-divinity-0?ref=nav_search

After Reset:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/blackcloudstudios/after-reset-rpg-rebooted?ref=nav_search

Speakeasy:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1894392880/speakeasy-a-mob-themed-hidden-role-party-game?ref=nav_search

Learnt:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/836422533/learnt-podcast-season-2?ref=nav_search

Listen to Episodes of “Learnt” here:
http://learntpodcast.podomatic.com

Music by TeknoAXE

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Harmless Nightmares: Among the Sleep

 I have no memory of what it was like to be two-years-old. I don’t suspect that you do either. But even as an older child, I remember how scary it was to be so small in such a large world. Sure, as a kid, you aren’t as aware of your own mortality; but there is still inherent fear in pain and loss and the unknown. Among the Sleep uses these ingrained emotions to tell a story from a perspective that we rarely see in survival horror games. Like Amnesia and Outlast, the player is stripped of offensive agency and is forced to run and hide from what bumps in the night. But unlike its macabre brethren, Among the Sleep offers a genuine reason for this vulnerability: a toddler can not easily defend itself and isn’t always keenly aware of its surroundings. The idea seems completely intuitive, but this is the first interactive experience to explore the true horror of being a child.

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Celebrating your second birthday starts off as a light-hearted and joyous occasion, filled with cake and toys and the adoration of your mother. However, it’s with the gift of a brand new teddy bear that things begin to go awry. Teddy comes to life and explores your room, playing a quick game of hide-and-seek in the deep, darkness of your wardrobe. He’s strange and surreal and could very well be the product of an active imagination; but your new stuffed companion seems mostly warm and friendly. Nevertheless, he warns that something is very wrong in your house, a portent of the terrifying adventure to come.

Waking in the middle of the night to Teddy being wrenched from your bed by an invisible force, this warning becomes all too prescient. Soon, your bed is over-turned and you are forced to crawl through the shadowy hallways of your new home; in search of Teddy and your mother.

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It’s in these early moments of Among the Sleep that the premise really shines. The player is never truly sure if what’s going on around them is genuinely supernatural or the byproduct of a youthful mind interpreting its environment in fantastical ways. The game reminds you why you were afraid of the dark as a kid; those veiled corners and crevices that infested your bedroom, places you were sure that monsters secretly dwelled. In Among the Sleep, the ghostly light streaming from the refrigerator feels acutely ominous, the coats dangling in the closet seem like specters in the night, and the spinning of the washing machine echoes like footsteps on pavement. Grounded in a semblance of reality, the game grows more horrifying with every bow-legged footstep.

But quickly it’s established that this world is not a mere illusion. There are real monsters to be dealt with if you want to return to your mother’s embrace. It’s an expected turn of events, if a little disappointing. When Among the Sleep loses its ambiguity, it loses a lot of its luster as well. The story seems to be reaching for metaphorical high ground, but instead gets bogged down in magic and fantasy. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does transform an interesting horror concept into rather conventional fare.

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Luckily, even at its most predictable, Among the Sleep maintains its ability to scare. The nightmarish landscapes are twisted representations of childhood delights: mangled libraries, apocalyptic playgrounds, and haunted playhouses. This atmospheric dread is brought to life with a brilliant attention to detail that evokes genuine tension; even when the player is safe from danger. The shifting color palette, eerie lighting, and multilayered sound design come together to assure that Among the Sleep feels like a cohesive experience from beginning to end. This artistic polish creates potent immersion and the teased Virtual Reality support will likely lead the game to become even more captivating in the future. Still, you’ll definitely need some recovery time after playing to readjust to normal life. Among the Sleep will have you creeping around corners, terrified of what could be on the other side.

It’s clear, however, that the game was originally interested in more than cheap thrills. There’s a psychological tone that resonates throughout, toying with important ideas like mental trauma, divorce and alcoholism. If handled adeptly, it could’ve been a poignant means to utilize the more surreal environments. Unfortunately, the player is given very little context for this commentary; having to look too far between the lines to make any emotional impact. It’s a huge problem, especially during the game’s final moments where realizations seem to come completely out of left-field. I can’t say more without delving into spoiler territory; but suffice it to say, a few more dialogue sequences or flashbacks could’ve gone a long way towards drawing out these thematic elements.

I also found myself wishing that Among the Sleep had chosen to focus more on exploration than on contrived gameplay mechanics. There are some mildly interesting ideas: Teddy provides a sense of comfort, represented by a bright emanating light, and you can crawl faster than you can walk. But neither of these concepts is implemented with any kind of innovation or forward thinking. Instead, they feel like character representation; simple mechanical proof that you are a baby. Furthermore, once the titular monster finally decides to show up – roughly two-thirds through the experience – Among the Sleep devolves into Slender. The music gets louder, the screen begins to shake and blur, and suddenly you are in the clutches of a vicious hag. It feels blatantly tacked on and compared to the rest of the game, deeply unoriginal.

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Ultimately, I would’ve preferred that the culprit remain anonymous and invisible, effecting the environment without resorting to tired tropes. The fear was most palpable in Among the Sleep when a glass would come crashing off the countertop or a ball would roll across the floor on its own. All I needed was a few brief glimpses of the beast to be afraid, to feel hunted. Terror doesn’t come from actual death within the game; it comes from the anxiety of being followed and threatened. Once I was killed, the immersion was broken and the “game” began to show its seams.

Yet, for all its faults, Among the Sleep succeeds in its primary mission: You will feel like a small child and as such, the danger of the situation is greatly amplified. There are moments when your “adult senses” will go off and you’ll be struck with panic as a baby climbs across an oven or over a well. If nothing else, by the end of the experience, you’ll feel as though the child has come-of-age or at least come to terms with whatever is ailing her family.

Whether it’s a nightmare or a garishly real adventure into child psychology, Among the Sleep turns the horror genre on its head. While it doesn’t quite live up to its initial promise, the game is still a satisfyingly scary experience that will have you peering under your bed for bogeymen.

Score: 7/10
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BREAKING NEWS: Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules Released for FREE

It can be a huge investment to get started in roleplaying games. The rule books are often expensive and require a certain amount of commitment and resources. You really have to want to play to fork out the dough. For first time players, this can be intimidating business; and even veteran roleplayers can be tepid before exploring a new system.

That’s why it’s such a huge deal that Wizards of the Coast is releasing the basic rules for its new edition of Dungeons & Dragons for free via PDF. If you’re new to the scene, you’ll be able to try the game before devoting your hard-earned dollars to its more complex supplements. This is an impressive and generous step that will inevitably bring more players to the collective D&D table.

We haven’t had a chance to review these new materials yet; but the public playtest was demonstrative of a promising system. You have nothing to lose by downloading the file and taking a look. Dungeons & Dragons might win you over, whether you’re a brand new gamer or one who’s been alienated along the way.

You can find the basic rules here.

 

Jetpack Joust Video Review: The Floor is Jelly

What would it be like if the entire surface of the world was made of jelly? “The Floor is Jelly” explores that question and creates a beautifully surreal experience in the process. It’s a phenomenally simple concept that is almost perfect executed. Find out more in our review!

You can find “The Floor is Jelly” here:
http://store.steampowered.com/app/295750/