masseffect12

My Favorite Friends in the Mass Effect Universe

Mass Effect is a series that has a special place in my heart. It’s perhaps the first potent example of successful episodic storytelling in gaming and I was utterly riveted by its grand existentialist future. Even after its controversial ending, the sheer revelation of playing in the sandbox of such a thoroughly detailed universe has left me with a collection of digital memories that I will always cherish.

That’s why I was so excited when I learned that my sister wanted to experience Commander Shepard’s journey for herself. It was the perfect way for me to relive my own first playthrough. Her reactions and surprise as the story unfolds have been a joy to witness; but watching her meet some of Mass Effect’s most lively characters has been my favorite part of this experiment. It’s easy to forget what a gloriously diverse crew is aboard the Normandy, each member bringing a unique and colorful personality that is just as valuable as their skill in battle.

My reintroduction to these characters has been like a reunion with old friends. Some of them even inspire genuine affection and empathy. It might seem strange to someone who hasn’t played the game, but I’ve found myself reminiscing about specific character moments and adventures. I feel something for these people and that is a testament to Bioware’s masterful writing.

Normally, I’m adverse to trivial top ten lists and opinion pieces. They feel like clickbait and comment starters. But frankly, I haven’t been able to get Jack’s menacing sneer, Miranda’s cold self-control, or Kasumi’s sarcastic quips out of my head. This is simply an exercise in fun, a means of exorcising the thoughts from my head.

These are my favorite characters from the Mass Effect Universe.

(Mild Spoilers follow, but I’ll do my best to keep them minimal. Play this game if you have not yet.)

10. Captain (or Admiral or Counselor) David Anderson

masseffect1

A grizzled war veteran, a weary politician, a loyal advisor and mentor; Captain Anderson is a voice of reason in a government that is prone to gridlock and self-preservation. While he is never an official member of the Normandy’s crew (at least after he cedes control to Shepard), Anderson is one of the few characters who I would race across the galaxy to speak with. His informed advice and willingness to break the restrictive rules of the Council is essential to Shepard’s success; and despite his relatively small role in the franchise his presence is pervasive. Anderson’s final moments in Mass Effect 3 are particularly poignant and enough to bring a tear to your eye, proving just how much of a father figure he is. He’s my favorite member of the Alliance and one of the few politicians I’d put Shepard’s trust in.

9. EDI

masseffect2

EDI is a lifesaver. She’s gotten the Normandy out of serious trouble on several occasions and helped to prove that there is as much diversity in Artifical Intelligence as there is in biological life. Mass Effect could’ve easily delivered the same trope that so many other science fiction properties have accepted as fact: that when machines are given consciousness, they will turn against their masters. At first, the Reapers and the Geth seem to reinforce this assumption, but EDI stands in stark contrast. She cares about the crew, about Shepard, about Joker. She is empathetic and curious and striving to be something more than a voice inside a server. EDI’s arc is brilliant and satisfying. She’s so likeable that she can have a major impact on Shepard’s final choice in the series.

8. Thane Krios

MassEffect3

The picture of a classic warrior monk, Thane Krios is an assassin with a conscious. He kills because that’s what he’s been trained to do, but he is aware that what he is doing is wrong and sinful. Thane carries a hint of mystery with him at all times and the fact that he is dying of a fatal disease allows the player to value every minute they have with him. His swiftness and bravery in battle is awe-inspiring. His love for his family is moving. Thane is a relatively short-term ally of Commander Shepard (he doesn’t appear until the second disc of Mass Effect 2), but his loyalty is invaluable. He is a key component to the invasion of the Collector Homeworld and saves the crew from an assault by Kai Leng. He can also be a powerful love interest. Regardless, the stoic and stealthy Thane will be long remembered for one particular line: “That was for Thane, you son of a bitch.”

7. Legion

masseffect4

Like EDI, Legion is a testament to reason and morality amongst Artificial Intelligence. The Geth had long been the stock enemies of the series by the time we met the 1,183 programs that make up the “mobile platform” that is Legion. They had been corrupted by the Reapers and never once did we contemplate the fact that we had been mowing through thousands of “living” creatures in the name of galactic justice. Legion is a brilliant counterargument, a consciousness that could not come to consensus with his Geth brethren. He recognized the Reapers as a controlling menace and chose to rebel, working with Shepard to discover a new path for his people. I love characters that subvert our expectation and Legion’s sacrifices are proof that artificial life in the Mass Effect universe is just as capable of good as it is of evil.

6. Urgnot Wrex

MassEffect5

There is a moment in the first Mass Effect that many people remember vividly: scrambling to load a previous save after Urgnot Wrex is killed by Lt. Williams. Wrex is awesome and it’s unfathomable that you could continue your fight with Saren without the tough Krogan bastard by your side. Despite his instinctual stubbornness and quick draw, Wrex is a rarity amongst his species. He understands that they can’t continue their tribal infighting if they want to survive. The genophage has weakened them, but they have to unite and open up to the galaxy if they expect a solution. Wrex is an unlikely leader, the finest Krogan alive, and a terrifically loyal friend. From ME1 to ME3, he has had Shepard’s back in even the darkest of circumstances. Wrex rocks.

5. Mordin Solus

masseffect6

A mad scientist, a crack shot, and a beautiful singer; Mordin Solus adds some much needed humor to the dire circumstances of Mass Effect 2. He’s so brilliant that he can barely contain his brimming mind. Mordin speaks scientific jargon at speeds so lightning quick that they’re barely understandable, but his quips and humorous insights manage to keep us laughing despite the Collector threat. Perhaps more importantly, Professor Solus is willing to own up to his past mistakes. His redemption is stunningly beautiful and his final sacrifice is moving and courageous. We’ll remember Mordin for his terrific rendition of Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, but his true legacy is the good he brings to the universe. Like Wrex, Legion, and EDI, Mordin is more than he seems at first glance, a character of a deep complexity that we rarely see in any medium.

4. Tali’zorah vas Normandy

masseffect7

If I’m being honest, Tali was not one of my favorite characters in the original Mass Effect. She seemed too juvenile, too inexperienced to have any real impact on the mission. For that reason, I rarely took her planet side. In my mind, she was simply the primary engineer of the Normandy – keeping the engines running and clean. But somewhere in the next two games, Tali began to grow on me. She was always thinking of others, but utterly loyal to the Quarian fleet. She even showed an aptitude for combat as she joined a special forces unit. The political dynamics of Tali’s personal life were brought to the forefront in the subsequent games of the series and she was developed into one of the most narratively dynamic crew members. Her sweetness and curiosity were always welcomed and because she had been around since the beginning, I could always relate more to Tali than some of the newer recruits. She was rough around the edges, but I came to adore her.

3. Liara T’soni

masseffect8

Initially a soft-spoken and bookish archaeologist, Liara T’soni becomes a formidable slinger of biotics, a high-class information broker, and a vitally important member of the Normandy’s crew. Her vast knowledge of Prothean history and the ability to tap into Shepard’s mind help to unravel the location of Saren and thus the mystery of the Reapers. Liara is a truly intrinsic element of Mass Effect’s over-arcing story, but she also manages to win the player over with her kind actions and inquisitive nature. She is deeply engrained with Shepard, whether as a close friend or as a lover, and cares for him like few others can. With her empathetic perspective and loving attention, no one could replace Liara’s impact on the lives of those around her. Even as she pretends to be a hardened criminal, her bright personality continues to shine.

2. Jeff “Joker” Moreau

masseffect9

Broken but not beaten, Joker is the kind of pilot that makes flying look easy. Diagnosed with a rare condition that makes his bones brittle and easy to shatter, Jeff Moreau is practically confined to his chair at the helm of the Normandy. Luckily, that’s exactly where he belongs. Joker is always prepared with a fresh joke or an opinionated comment about the rest of the crew; but he’s also loyal to the end and is one of the few characters to stick with Shepard throughout all of his adventures. Even though he’s never in a landing party, Joker is an essential member of the team. His quick wits and daring attitude have saved Shepard and the rest of the galaxy countless times. But even more admirable is his love for EDI. What could’ve been a creepy or ill-conceived romance is actually a heart-wrenching and wonderful example of two different kinds of people connecting despite their differences. Joker’s a great pilot and a good man; one of the most important people in my Shepard’s life.

Before we get to Number One, here’s some Honorable Mentions:

masseffect11

-Jack: At first glance, she’s a psychopathic killer with insane biotic powers and a chip on her shoulder; but after some examination, Subject Zero is just a broken kid who has yet to deal with her tragic past. It broke my heart to leave Jack off this list, because her changes are some of the most impressive over the course of the franchise.

-Grunt: He’s big, he’s bad, and he’s bred for perfection. Grunt is the epitome of what a Krogan should be, but he’s also the perfect weapon to point directly at the Collectors. His violent nature can be a bit disturbing, but Shepard reigns him in and becomes Grunt’s valued clan leader.

-Kasumi: One of my biggest regrets is that Kasumi was not in the original code for Mass Effect 2. Only available through DLC, Kasumi is nimble and quick, but her real appeal is her sharp sarcastic wit. Another loyalty mission with her would’ve been absolutely amazing. Hell, she can disappear! How cool is that?

-Samara: A no-nonsense Asari justicar, Samara is basically the equivalent of a Jedi Knight. She takes the fight to evil and justice, no matter what the cost may be. Samara’s non-combat loyalty mission involving her murderess daughter is one of the highlights of Mass Effect 2 and left me hoping to learn more about the mysterious Ardat-Yakshi.

-Admiral Hackett: Something about those sweet, dulcet tones of Admiral Hackett’s voice make us feel like the Alliance might actually know what they’re doing in the battle against the Reapers. Although he’s mainly just a voice on an intercom in the first two games, Mass Effect 3 fleshes out Hackett’s role in the galactic conflict and has us wishing we could learn more about the man in the hologram.

1. Garrus Vakarian

masseffect10

I don’t know what it is about Garrus Vakarian that makes him so universally likeable. Ask anyone on the street who their favorite Mass Effect character is and “Garrus” will probably be their answer. It might have something to do with his deep, intrinsically friendly voice. Or perhaps it’s because he’s the equivalent of Batman on the corrupt space station Omega. Or maybe it’s because every conversation between Shepard and Garrus seems like the epitome of two best friends who know everything about each other. Regardless, Garrus is a charismatic, hilarious, trustworthy, yet troubled friend who manages to feel like he could walk out of your television screen and come alive. He’s the kind of guy you want to have a beer with – or at least shoot beer cans on top of the Citadel Presidium with.

If there’s one member of the Normandy’s crew that Shepard can’t live without, it’s Garrus. He’s great in a fight and even better afterwards, when everyone needs to wind down and have a laugh. He might do a lot of calibrating, but Garrus Vakarian is my favorite Mass Effect character.

lich

Your First Time: What You Need to Know Before Embarking on Your First D&D Adventure

There’s been a lot of fuss over Dungeons & Dragons lately. It’s topping the non-fiction charts on Amazon, filling book store shelves, and getting tons of attention from geeky little websites like this one. While this beloved RPG has been central to the lives of many tabletop gamers, you may have just jumped on the bandwagon. Maybe you’ve been waiting for years to find a good reason to play or maybe you’ve just discovered D&D during this whirlwind of press coverage. Regardless of your path to this improvisational world of powerful wizards, mighty warriors, and deadly assassins; there aren’t a ton of resources for brand new players.

Dungeons & Dragons can be a confusing franchise to navigate. With five editions spanning forty years, hundreds of valuable sourcebooks and a myriad of clever imitators, where does one begin their journey?

The following is a collection of advice that we hope will get you on the right track. Roleplaying games are fun, engaging and extremely social and the more folks who are seduced by the hobby, the more fun we’re all liable to have.

Welcome aboard.

dndnext4

The Basics

Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game and much of the following assumes that you are already aware of what a tabletop roleplaying game is. We hope that the idea is appealing to you before you invest your time and money into what can become a pretty intensive pastime. But for brevity’s sake, a tabletop roleplaying game is typically a means of improvised storytelling structured around a specific set of rules.

There are dozens of RPGs that function in every possible genre, but D&D focuses on the high fantasy of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan. This is not a traditional board game with winners and losers. In fact, the rules are loose enough to be open to interpretation. Players work together to build a tale of magical lands and mysterious foes, using the Player’s Handbook as a guideline, but never allowing it to impede on their fun.

For information about tabletop RPGs, check out our “Beginner’s Guide”:

Step One: Find Your Edition

Let’s be clear here: D&D is not a single game with a long-standing set of rules. It’s not Monopoly. There have been “Five” distinct editions – although even that point is debated. Most of the older versions have been made available digitally and you might even be able to find them used at your local game shop; but for the most part I’d suggest ignoring them for the time being. They’ll likely feel dated to modern sensibilities and will have left behind some of the serious innovations of the last ten years.

The newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons is 5th and it’s the one that we’ll be focusing on in this article. It’s likely that this is the game you’ve been hearing about as it’s been garnering a ton of praise from critics and players alike. Products have just begun to roll out in the last few weeks with the Player’s Handbook having just hit store shelves and the Monster Manual coming at the end of September. The Dungeon Master’s Guide is also planned for a November release.

Intended Dungeon Masters are going to want to pick up all three of these products, as they will give you the widest scope of possibilities for your narrative. Players can probably stick with the Player’s Handbook.

Fifth Edition is the only version of the game that Wizards of the Coast will be supporting from here on out; so if you want new material, you’re going to want to make sure you pick up the book with this gorgeous cover:

This is what 5e's Player's Handbook looks like.
This is what 5e’s Player’s Handbook looks like.

But beyond the potential for updates and new goodies, Fifth Edition offers a simplified and modular set of mechanics that emphasize collaboration and storytelling. There are loads of customization options and story hooks that will allow you to build exactly the character that you want to portray. However, even more impressively, D&D 5E is streamlined enough that even the most complex mechanics can be learned in just a few sessions. It’s perfect for beginners, but pays enough of a tribute to previous iterations that even your veteran friends are likely to enjoy what it has to offer.

Click here for our detailed first impressions of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition.

What’s more, Wizards of the Coast has made the Basic Rules for players and Dungeon Masters available online for free. Everything you need to start an initial adventure is included in these documents, but you’ll likely require the premium products if you want to expand your horizons. Still, this is an incredibly generous offer that requires zero investment on the part of you or your potential group. Take advantage of it before you bother forking over any cash.

Another potential choice is Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, Wizards’ previous incarnation of the series that will likely remain in retailers for several more years. This vast collection of sourcebooks can be incredibly appealing because of how many products are currently available, but before you jump into the deep end, you should remember that 4E is no longer supported by its publisher. There will be no more material in the future and as such, it has mostly stagnated. The only legitimate reason to explore Fourth Edition is its unique style of gameplay that highlights intense, complicated, miniatures-driven combat that sits somewhere between a wargame and a classic RPG. However, unless your group is swayed by this stylistic choice, I’d suggest steering clear – despite the fact that I’m a fan of the system.

Lastly, you could take a look at Pathfinder, a third-party tribute to older versions of D&D that has become so popular that it outsold Fourth Edition for most of its lifespan. This is the first time that any roleplaying game has accomplished this feat, essentially overtaking the dominant franchise; a success won mostly through its complex mechanics and attention to detail. This is both a blessing and a curse. If you like a game with rules for everything, Pathfinder is probably for you. If you like a game that is open to interpretation, it’s probably less so. I’ve also found that Pathfinder is not terribly friendly to newbies and it may behoove you to start somewhere else to decide whether or not you require rules this complicated in your RPGs.

My advice: stick with Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. It has the most room to grow.

Step Two: Find Your Group

WP_20130430_002

Unless you already have a bunch of friends lined up, it’s easy to convince yourself that no one is going to want to play this crazy new-fangled fantasy storytelling game with you. But I promise you, there are lots of folks who have played D&D or will want to try it for the first time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone about my campaign and they’ve replied, “I’ve always wanted to try that.” Roleplaying is not the counter-cultural hobby it used to be. It’s growing and expanding with every passing year, mostly as a direct response to the relative isolation of video gaming. Dungeons & Dragons is a great reason to hang out with people you care about.

In fact, my first ongoing group came together because we were looking for something to do that wouldn’t cost us a ton of money, but that we could participate in week-in and week-out. Not everyone was on board with the idea at first, but they were open-minded enough to give it a try. By the end of the first session, they were dying to see where the story would go next. D&D isn’t for everyone, but it’s probably for more people than we give it credit for.

Ask around and gauge interest. Post a Facebook status or a Tweet putting feelers out for other players that are already in your social circle. Bring up your interest in casual conversation and see how people react. Before you know it, you’ll have found three or four people who will be willing to give the game a shot. Get together and create characters, make the atmosphere fun and light. There’s no reason to stress about getting it right the first time, because you’ll learn the specifics as time goes by. If you’re having a good time with your group, you are doing it right.

A great resource for new gamers is the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Kit. It includes five pre-made characters, a brief summation of the rules, a compelling adventure, and a set of dice for only twenty bucks. Check out our full review:

Step Three A: Dungeon Master – Build Your Story

D&D requires that someone step-up to the hallowed position of referee, confidant, and storyteller: the Dungeon Master. This can seem like a challenging role, but it’s actually quite rewarding if given the proper time and energy. DMing is an art form, but it can be learned; and if you have any grasp of your creative muscles, you’re already built for the job.

Generally, if you’re the one bringing everyone to the table, you should probably be the Dungeon Master. You’ll be more familiar with the rules and have that burning fire to weave the exciting tales boiling inside of you. If you’ve been invited to a game and want to try your hand at DMing, feel free to ask; but know that it is likely that someone else has already been prepping an adventure or campaign.

There are plenty of methods to use while Dungeon Mastering and you can find many of them here, but when starting, there a few of different entry points.

First, you could use a pre-written adventure path like Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Lost Mines of Phandelver. This is an effective option if you aren’t yet confident enough to explore your own worlds and characters, providing all the necessary tools to tell a gripping story. However, if adventures feel too constrictive, you could also look into any number of D&D’s established campaign settings: Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Ptolus. Though there have been no official 5E setting guides, most of the previous installments feature inspiration and concepts that cross mechanical boundaries and could easily help you bring life to your game.

The alternative is bold and challenging, but ultimately more satisfying: you could build your own world and allow your players to venture forth through its mysteries. Chances are, you already know if this is the direction you want to go. You’ve been daydreaming about fantastical lands, imagining all of the wild characters that could inhabit them, and D&D happens to be the perfect way to express your imagination. Be prepared for the long haul with this strategy though, it requires a lot of work and preparation. Luckily, the Dungeon Master’s Guide will likely provide all the tools you need to embolden your vision.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this game is collaborative. As entertaining as it is to construct an adventure of your own making, remember to factor in what your players want out of Dungeons & Dragons. This is their story too. It’s easy to assume that the Dungeon Master should do all the heavy lifting; but if the group has created interesting characters, they’ll offer loads of inspiration for the varying directions your narrative could go. Your primary job as DM is to engage and entertain everyone at the table. Keep the balance and you’ll be successful at this task.

Step Three B: Players – Build Your Characters

There’s nothing more freeing than a blank character sheet. It’s full of brimming possibilities; literally anyone could come alive at your fingertips. We’ve already addressed the best ways to inhabit a character in previous posts, but how does one get started with the creation process?

In D&D 5E, you begin this process by selecting from one of nine fantasy races: humans, elves, dwarves, halflings, dragonborn, half-orcs, half-elves, gnomes or tieflings. Each race comes with various advantages and disadvantages, along with a distinct flavor that helps to define character and encourage roleplaying. Subraces allow for even deeper customization – a Dark Elf is very different from a High Elf – and add further complexity to the biology and civilization of your campaign world.

race

Next up is your choice of character class; a position that can come across as a profession, but is really more of a life’s calling. Class determines what powers and abilities will be made available to you and separates your skills from the rest of the groups’. A fighter uses his martial prowess to command the battlefield. A wizard conjures spells of arcane might by channeling years of knowledge and education. A warlock makes a pact with a divine figure; imbuing them with power, but at the cost of subjugation. Your class is the single most important element of your character as it determines how she will grow and change. As you collect experience points, new abilities will become accessible and you’ll witness as your level one spell slinger becomes an all powerful mage; capable of manipulating the energy of a god.

race2

With your combination of race and class in tact, you’ll use the information in the text to fill out your character sheet; upgrading ability scores, skills, combat information and significant other features. Afterwards, you can purchase weapons and armor to equip your avatar with all he’ll need to slay his enemies.

Fifth Edition also includes a chapter on background and personality that will help to spice up the narrative possibilities for your character. Backgrounds establish what your character did before their adventuring days: perhaps they were an Acolyte in a cult of Orcus or a Soldier in the Aundairian military. This previous life provides a new set of skills and resources that will help to bolster your already impressive abilities. For example, a Sailor gains proficiency in Athletics and Perception, as well as easy and accessible passage on any ship at just about any port. Further, the background provides four randomized plot hooks that will embed the character deeper into the world: a personality trait, an ideal, a bond with someone else, and a severe flaw. You can choose to develop your own characteristics – in fact, I think you should – or roll a die and accept the result on a table.

Regardless, remember that your character is not just a series of statistics. The more detail you put into her back story and motivation, the more you’ll get out of the game.

Step Four: Play!

So the Dungeon Master has developed his story, the players have created their characters, and its finally time to sit down at the table and play. This can be an absolutely exhilarating experience, but don’t put too much pressure on yourselves. You’re bound to make a few mistakes with the rules and likely to feel awkward while playing pretend with your adult friends for the first time. This is all natural and will fade with time.

The fact of the matter is that the rules aren’t entirely essential. They will provide heightened dynamics and drama to your game, but you’ll likely have loads of fun regardless of how many of them you’ve initially memorized. I often suggest starting with the basics and slowly adding more complexity as time goes by. Show your players basic combat before implementing maneuvers and actions. Demonstrate a basic Ability Check before delving into skills and proficiencies. This will allow everyone to learn the game at the same pace.

As a player, there’s no reason to be embarrassed if you want to take your character seriously and “act out” the role. It might seem silly at first; but from my experience, when one person takes a chance and gets into character, the rest of the party will follow. The best roleplaying I’ve ever seen has often come from a single player who leads everyone else down the same path and shows them that it’s okay to improvise. People have been sitting around camp fires telling stories for thousands of years, the only difference with D&D is that it uses some dice and is more collaborative than a shaman’s yarn. The more invested you are in your character and the story, the better your experience will be.

…and ultimately, that’s all that matters. If you’re having fun, you’re doing a good job. Dungeons & Dragons can appear to be intimidating and complicated, but really it’s just an entertaining hobby that allows a group of friends to engage with their creative impulses.

Don’t wait any longer. Give it a try.

Play Through History: Console Crash of the 80s

With the blockbuster success of Pac-Man, the video game industry began to grow overnight. Games like Donkey Kong, Frogger, and Pitfall brought us future powerhouse development houses like Nintendo, Konami, and Activision. But with loads of cash floating around, there was little attention paid to quality and soon the whole business model would come crashing down.

In this episode, Valerie plays some of these seminal games and gives us her opinion. She also sits through the mind-bogglingly bad “E.T” – which is worth the price alone.

Music by TEKNOAxe

Jetpack Joust Plays: Escape Goat 2

We were huge fans of MagicalTimeBean’s first outing Escape Goat and so when a sequel was announced, we were over the moon. A few months after release, we’re finally getting a chance to play through the mind-bending madness of this terrific puzzle game. Consider this a sneak preview before our full review in the coming weeks.

screencheat

Our Favorite Indies of PAX Prime 2014

If it were up to us, the Penny Arcade Expo would be a sovereign nation; where the garb of the common citizen would be cosplay and the primary language would be obscure video game references. We would almost certainly apply for immigration status, so we could live in this land of wonders. At the very least, we’d be perpetual tourists. PAX is Disney World for gamers.

But unfortunately, budget constraints are a very real thing and we weren’t able to make the trek up to Seattle to indulge in our Gabe-and-Tycho addiction. Still, with live streams and a never-ending news cycle, we were able to obtain a modicum of the experience. PAX has never been known for huge Triple-A announcements, but it is a convention where indies can run rampant; where small games can make huge splashes. As such, our eyes were on the Indie Megabooth and through the magic of internet and social media buzz, we were able to narrow down ten games that we can’t wait to get our hand on.

Titan Souls (Acid Nerve)

Somewhere between Legend of Zelda, Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus is Titan Souls: a game where a solitary hero travels to an ancient world of idle ruins and enormous creatures. With its simple but expressive art style and its gloriously smooth gameplay, Titan Souls might just be able to compete in a market flooded with dungeon crawlers.

Never Alone (Upper One Games)

The story of Never Alone’s development is almost as compelling as the game itself. Funded by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council and made by native Alaskans, Never Alone is an incredibly personal experience. It’s the retelling of oral legends that have been woven for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years, by this small underrepresented community. Steeped in the myths of these indigenous peoples, it is unlikely that you will have ever played a game quite like this one.

Salt and Sanctuary (Ska Studios)

Castlevania by way of H.P. Lovecraft, Salt and Sanctuary is a dark and foreboding journey into the heart of an island that has managed to remain remote in a world of perpetual war. This is mostly because of the horrible aberrant monstrosities that reside on its shores. Salt and Sanctuary is from the creators of Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher and is one of many exclusive titles that has proven Sony’s commitment to the indie scene.

Alone with You (Benjamin Rivers)

Another PS4 exclusive, Alone with You is a minimalistic survival game that takes place on a terraformed planet gone wrong. Stuck aground with a witty artificial intelligence, the player must find a way to get off-world within one month. It’s a killer concept that is being marketed as “romantic science fiction”, which leaves us wondering if it has a few extra tricks up its sleeves. The whole thing comes across as bizarre, but we’re intrigued to see if it can offer any new mechanics to an oversaturated crowd of survival games.

Interstellaria (Cold Rice Games)

There are lots of expansive tactical space games out there, but few of them carry the mystique of Interstellaria. Like some ambitious Apple 2 product, this game allows the player to captain a starship, recruit a randomly generated crew, and explore planets that look straight out of an early Mega Man game. One part strategy game, one part simulation, one part platformer, Interstellaria is a clever combination of elements that looks very promising.

The Next Penelope: Race to Odysseus (Aurelien Regard)

We love racing games; especially completely unrealistic, lightning fast racing games that bend the laws of physics and give us loads of explosive tools to play with. The Next Penelope: Race to Odysseus is all of those beautiful things and more. A tribute to top-down racers like the original F-Zero, this is a small game with huge boss fights, extreme tracks, and exhilarating speed. For reasons of pure fun, this might be our favorite of the bunch.

A Voyeur for September (Team Meat)

Honestly, we have no idea what this game is about; but when Team Meat speaks, we listen. All we know about A Voyeur for September is that it’s a “live action stealth game” and will likely be released before the studio’s other brewing title, Mew-Genics. Edmund McMillen was known for his crazy experiments before the success of Super Meat Boy and this looks to be a return to form. Color us intrigued.

Fire Watch (Campo Santo)

A stunning first-person adventure game, Fire Watch seems to be in the vein of Gone Home and Ether One. Responsible for keeping lookout over the wilds of Wyoming during a particularly hot summer, the player is drawn into the landscape to solve a mystery. With only Delilah – a voice on a radio – to guide you, you must hike, climb, repel and explore in this dangerous environment. Fire Watch has a gorgeous color palette and some harrowing imagery, but we especially love when games focus on investigation and discovery. Those elements are here in spades. As such, this game has shot to the top of our most anticipated list.

Screencheat (Surprise Attack Games)

Admit it; sometimes during a heated game of Goldeneye, you’d take a peak at your opponent’s screen to see where they were. We all did it. It was the systematic corruption of splitscreen competition. Screencheat is a brilliant solution to this old school problem. In these multiplayer death matches, you are completely invisible to your opponents and the only way they can find you is to look on your screen. How has it taken so long for someone to come up with this amazing idea? It’s intuitive and quirky and absolutely insane.

As a sidenote, we love this trend of splitscreen gaming on PC. Keep it coming indie developers!

Fistful of Gun (FarmerGnome)

Bullet hell in the old west, eh? Sign me up. Gunslingers with their own unique controls and powers? Even better. Crazy co-op multiplayer action? I’m sold. Fistful of Gun is a wild arcade-y ride that looks better in action than I could ever describe with words.

We Need to Be More Inclusive: A JPJ Rumination

Dear Internet Gaming Community,

The last few weeks have been a swirling mass of controversy for indie darlings Depression Quest and Fez; or rather, for their creators – human beings who have been the targets of extreme and unwarranted vitriol. I won’t even mention their names, because frankly, they deserve the dignity of a slow silencing of the online hatred. However, if you’ve spent any time on Reddit, 4Chan or any number of gaming blogs or websites, you are well aware of the situation.

I am not writing this to critique their actions or their behavior. I do not know them. I know the face they present to our community. I also know that the human species is prone to occasional mistakes, bad choices, and misrepresentation.

We are also prone to overreacting; especially to circumstances that have yet to deliver all of the facts.

This stormy debate has opened up many old conversations and started many new ones: What is a “gamer”? Is it simply someone who plays video games or is it a more specific sect of “hardcore” players? What is the role of journalism within the industry and how do we define integrity? Are games journalists merely tools for the hype machines that have become Triple-A studios or do readers hold some of the blame for falling for the clickbait? What should we expect from designers on social media and how should wereact to fans that berate and abuse them?

Most of these discussions have been relatively civil, but there is an undercurrent of hostility that is deeply disturbing to me. The blatant sexism displayed by a small, but vocal minority of the gaming community can seem pervasive and endemic. Trolls or not, these online citizens have made life hell for anyone who speaks out in the support of a young woman who’s story hasn’t been completely told, a divisive creator who is wont to speak his vibrant mind, or a critic who disassembles games and analyzes their misogynistic tropes.

And we’re not just talking about verbal harassment. Social security numbers and addresses have been released to the public. Lives have been threatened. Careers may have been ruined. This is criminal shit that is being hocked at people who have done nothing to us personally but give the gift of a good game.

Sure, you could make the argument that this kind of behavior is a problem across the entire internet and society as a whole for that matter. But I’ve seen the good that the gaming community is capable of and it upsets me that a few ignorant jerks can tarnish our perception entirely. These people think of themselves as “gamers”, as some sort of superior nerd race that deserves to be catered to. However, from my experience, those who earn that title are kind, friendly, passionate and accepting. If you play Brain Age, you’re a gamer. If you play Dragon Quest, you’re a gamer. If you play, you’re a gamer; just as long as your remember to be nice.

We can’t just ignore the problem any more. We have to reject poisonous and hurtful communication. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but they should express it in meaningful ways and direct criticism at the games and the industry, not the personal lives of creators and critics. The internet doesn’t have to be a gossip column and it shouldn’t be a place for witch hunts and scapegoating. But more importantly, we have to strive to be more inclusive. We have to be welcoming and ready to accept criticism; ready to accept the challenge of changing course.

The truth is that I can understand why this community could be intimidating to engage with as a female gamer. Regardless of our collective good intentions, the pugnacious vocal minority is loud and frightening. No one wants to be the victim of their slurs and profanity. Even though the majority of gamers lean towards positivity and inclusion, message boards and comments threads can seem filled to the brim with venomous hate speech. It’s a false image of gaming culture, but it leaves behind a devastating impact. That’s why it’s up to us to fight back against this kind of behavior. It makes us all look bad.

Let’s be clear, the age of the “Gamer” isn’t dead, but it is redefining itself.

Mostly, we need to learn to embrace nuance. Just because a few members of the community say repulsively misogynistic things, does not mean we are all sexist. These are not personal attacks on you. But similarly, just because gaming is a form of entertainment, does not mean it is immune to social critique. In fact, criticism often comes from a place of abiding love and passion. I adore hip-hop and punk rock, but can acknowledge that there is a chauvinistic streak within these musical subcultures. That doesn’t diminish my passion for them; it simply strengthens my desire to improve the situation. Likewise, I consider myself a feminist, but that doesn’t mean I agree with every argument made by Anita Sarkeesian. In fact, I believe I could make some valid counterpoints. Still, the information she presents to the public is valuable to this essential discussion and I appreciate the hard work and research she has put into her criticisms.

This is not about censorship. Again, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But they are also entitled to analyze their own worldviews. We are all responsible for maintaining an open mind, for reflecting on facts and reacting to them not based on our own ideology; but by the truth they reveal.

And we should strive to cast a wide net. Everyone should feel welcomed in gaming; it strengthens us all if we are a diverse and passionate bunch. Sometimes video games can be sexist and they deserve to be called out as such. Sometimes video games are inclusive and progressive and this should be celebrated. This is a complex and layered subject and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to oversimplify the issue. That’s how opponents become demonized enemies. There’s been quite enough of that.

We still have a long way to go. All I ask is that we tone down rhetoric and maintain civility. Maybe that’s impossible with the anonymity of the internet, but I refuse to become a cynic. We can be better. We’re already pretty awesome, but we can be much better.

A good start would be to end the hate.

Yours,

Jetpack Joust

traveller

RPG in Focus: Traveller

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”.

*     *     *     *     *

Star Wars. Star Trek. Mass Effect. Some of the most potent genre storytelling of the last fifty years has fallen into the category of the space opera; an offshoot of science fiction that eschews realism for grand adventures and wide-open world building. These massive universes are feasts for the imagination, where starships can shoot through the heavens at light speed, aliens and humans can congregate together in strange civilizations, and unlikely heroes can triumph over powerful evil.

traveller2

Traveller did for science-fiction what Dungeons & Dragons did for fantasy. It’s a game that gives players access to a setting that is generic enough to allow them to customize their experience; providing tools for world-building, as well as a detailed default environment (akin to Greyhawk in D&D). Regardless of which route the players choose to take, the universe of Traveller follows a unique set of self-contained rules:

  1. Humans lead the central society in known-space. Essentially, the game takes our current science and culture to a futuristic extreme; postulating about an enormous Human-centric empire of the stars. Aliens exist and are important to intergalactic politics, but many of them hale from beyond explored territory.
  2. Despite the dozens of human colonies that expand outward through the galaxy, communication remains relatively primitive. There is no way to transmit a message or information faster than the speed of light. As such, individual planets are often isolated from their brethren and have thus fallen back into a system of feudal nobility. There is no powerful central authority.
  3. Travel does exist at faster-than-light speeds. Using “jump drives”, players can build their own swift starships that can dart along a few light-years at a time. Still, this process can take a few weeks, so travel is time consuming.

These concepts can be easily adapted for the needs of your campaign, but they do give the game a specific sensibility that makes it different from more advanced civilizations like the Republic from Star Wars or the Federation from Star Trek. Human foibles are still devastatingly clear in a universe driven by capitalism, greed, power, and violence.

traveller3

Character creation in Traveller is particularly intriguing because it introduced the system of the “life-path”. Instead of the clinical mechanics of dropping modifiers into stat bars on an empty character sheet, a mini-game is used to develop the avatar’s background, profession and skills. Players can take on the role of a human, a robot, a genetically modified creature, or an alien – of which there are many to choose from (especially when using supplement material). By weaving this short story, six characteristics are defined for the character: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Endurance, Education and Social Standing. Optional values included Psionic’s for psychic campaigns and Sanity for horror campaigns.

This emphasis on extreme customization treads into many other aspects of the game. Traveller is especially well-known for its complex method of starship modification, an element especially adored by fans of experimental tech. But it’s also possible to build planets, cultures, and entire segments of the galaxy with rules that encourage creativity. Few things are as fun as taking your ship to a planet of your design.

With many versions of the game to choose from, there is also a wide variety of gameplay styles. The classic system implemented a traditional D6 mechanic, in which players would roll two six-sided die against a predetermined difficulty to achieve success or failure in an action. Traveller version 4 and 5 use a different number of dice depending on the complexity of the action: the harder it is; the more dice you throw. Traveller20 requires a more modern d20 approach to roleplaying. All of these editions have their strengths and weaknesses, but being as there is no one method of playing the game, it can be complicated to address the mechanics generally.

traveller4

Regardless, Traveller was in the right place at the right time when it was released to the world in 1977. This was the very beginning of pop culture’s obsession with the space opera and it perfectly capitalized on the success of Star Wars before that property was able to create its own successful RPG. However, the game is more heavily inspired by harder science-fiction fare, especially Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Saga. As such, Traveller is relatively timeless and has remained one of the prominent roleplaying games to celebrate the genre for the last forty years.

When looking for a sci-fi setting that is lightly defined and open to interpretation, Traveller is the perfect system.

Hit the Table: Wizard Dodgeball Review

In this episode, we take a look at Wizard Dodgeball: a crazy hybrid game that combines tactics, sports and a casual sensibility. It’s a game that’s interesting in concept, but imperfect in its execution. Find out why in our review!

Wizard Dodgeball is currently on Kickstarter:
https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/peternewland/wizard-dodgeball

Find the Print & Play Version Here:
http://mindthegapstudios.com/games/wizarddodgeball/

Tabletop Deathmatch Episode Featuring Wizard Dodgeball:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqwAOYQXzGM

Would you kindly give us a “Like”, a “Subscribe” and a Share?

Music by TEKNOAxe