40 Years of Dungeons & Dragons: Rolling the Dice, Making Memories, and Killing Kobolds

40 Years of Dungeons & Dragons: Rolling the Dice, Making Memories, and Killing Kobolds

I enter the burial chamber cautiously, my feet quietly traipsing across the sopping wet floor. My stealth check succeeds and in the shadows of the ancient temple, I am practically unstoppable. Heavy breathing is audible from about fifty feet away and I roll for Nature to see if I can identify the creature it is emanating from. The dice don’t cooperate. I have no idea what I am about to face, but my allies are behind the doorway anticipating answers. The Cleric stumbles forward through the archway, her heavy armor clamoring in a failed attempt to follow me. The beast turns, letting out an ungodly scream. I notch an arrow as a minor action, aim and fire.

The dice hit the table, wobble and fall on the dreaded number one: a critical failure. In the low-light, I can make out the monster’s purple skin tone and the elongated tentacles around his mouth. Fear strikes my heart and the hearts’ of my compatriots. This is no mere dungeon dweller; this is a mind flayer. He leans down to consume the Cleric’s head in his giant maw. We don’t have much time.

The Barbarian kicks down the door and swipes at the aberrant beast with a massive double-bladed axe. His roll has more success than mine and the damage to the mind flayer is intense. It squeals in pain and releases the Cleric from its jaws. The Cleric takes a moment to heal her self as I notch a second arrow. I take my time, jostling the d20 in my palm. It tumbles across the tabletop and lands on a 20. Luck has returned to me. The arrow pierces a vulnerable spot on the mind flayer’s alien anatomy and my critical hit sends him tumbling to the ground in a puddle of black blood.

We retrieve the artifact and return to our benefactor; for payment and for experience.

Dungeons & Dragons has had an indelible impact on my life, the lives’ of other gamers, and on pop culture as a whole. It’s created potent memories like the one above; that to players are as real and vivid as those from their own lives. D&D is a catalyst for imagination, storytelling, friendship, and strategic thinking, providing the inspiration for a legion of tabletop and video game experiences. For the uninitiated, it is an odd and unclassifiable pastime. But for the true believers, Dungeons & Dragons is an exercise for the mind; a collaborative improvisation that transports players into vast worlds and epic tales. With forty years under its belt, this game deserves to be celebrated for its achievements, innovations and contributions to the world.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson met at the second ever Gen-Con tabletop gaming convention in 1969. Both men were deeply involved in the Midwest war-gaming scene and were particularly interested in the medieval time period. Arneson had begun experimenting with the idea of having players in his game group portray individual characters instead of mass armies as was traditional in the war games of the time. Blackmoor, as he called this experience, is the first example of what would later be called a roleplaying game. Arneson was learning how to build this game as he played it and took rules from a variety of sources, one of which was Gary Gygax’s Chainmail. Chainmail was the first major success Gygax had ever had as a game developer. While it offered rules for a typical war game, it also provided mechanics for one-on-one combat. An expansion added the elements of fantasy that would later become the foundation of D&D. Arneson began modifying Chainmail to better suit his Blackmoor campaign, adding familiar elements like Armor Class and Hit Points.

The true genesis of Dungeons & Dragons, however, occurred in 1972 when Gygax travelled to visit Arneson to experience the roleplaying game for himself. He was so taken by Blackmoor that he started building his own setting: Greyhawk. The two men collaborated via phone and mail, playtesting their new “Fantasy Game” with their respective groups. In January of 1974, 1,000 copies of Dungeons & Dragons were launched into the world.

Forty years, five editions, and millions of players later, the original roleplaying game is still an essential part of the fabric of gamer culture. It has outlived many of its peers, as well as its creators, and continues to attract curious, imaginative teens and adults all around the world. D&D is a phenomenon that has seen its fair share of tremendous success and crippling controversy, yet always seems to land on its feet in the eyes of the public. Still, there is a stigma attached to the game by those who’ve never experienced its charms. So beyond its historical importance to the gaming community, what is Dungeons & Dragons and why is it so important?

To define this particular game, you have to first define what a roleplaying game is. While there are dozens - if not hundreds - of RPG systems, most of them involve similar concepts. Players take on the role of a character in a fictional universe. They assign limited numeric values to skills and talents that the character would have available to them; quantifying and customizing their role in the story. The players are joined at the table by a Game Master, whose position can seem nebulous and open-ended. The Game Master is equal parts referee and storyteller; his job is to facilitate the game session by establishing the conflict, plot and setting. The player’s choices guide where the story will go, but the GM is responsible for providing a structure for the evening’s entertainment. GM’s must also have an extensive knowledge of the rules of the game, so that they are able to interpret them during more complicated circumstances.

 When a player wants to take a specific action (ex. picking a lock, attacking an enemy, examining a room), he rolls a die and adds the numeric value from the corresponding skill or power. The die represents the element of luck, which can be offset by the improvement of specific abilities in a character. The Game Master compares the player’s total with a preset value signifying the difficulty of the task. If the roll defeats the difficulty, the character succeeds in his action. This is a vast simplification, but the true essence of roleplaying.

The significance of Dungeons & Dragons goes beyond the fact that it pioneered the above mechanics. Dungeons & Dragons is arguably the most vast and “complete” roleplaying game ever made. While there are multiple versions featuring different rule sets (including the upcoming D&D Next), each version features dozens upon dozens of supplemental materials to help further define the game experience. The options are practically limitless and nearly any scenario that a GM or player can think up can be easily rendered into any game session.

In fact, the sheer variety in D&D can be overwhelming at times. There are more than twenty published campaign settings throughout its history that assist GM’s in creating massive and intricate worlds. With details of historical, geographic, political and cultural information, these tomes are enormous wells of inspiration. To populate these fantastical universes with player characters, hundreds of magical races and defining classes have been published with a nearly infinite amount of possible combinations. If the player can imagine a character concept, it can certainly be built within D&D rules. But heroes are useless without villains and perhaps the most intriguing and eye-catching element of the game is it’s thousands upon thousands of monstrous foes. The Monster Manual may be Dungeons and Dragons most important publication because it draws in curious strangers with its museum of oddities. Owlbears, Aboleths, Gelatinous Cubes, Kobolds; the Monster Manual is an endless resource of information on the social hierarchy, favored habitat, and evolutionary advantages of the horrors that the player’s will face on their epic quest. And once they’ve defeated their own devious mind flayer, Dungeons & Dragons provides a myriad of rewards in the form of magical items and other assorted loot.

Other roleplaying games offer most or all of these options, but aren’t nearly as comprehensive. Some games - like Pathfinder (which is heavily inspired by D&D 3.5), World of Darkness, and Star Wars - have attempted to compete, but rarely do they have the immense history and depth of the original. Dungeons & Dragons is also one of the most rigorously playtested games on the market, leading to a balance and polish that other titles are only now beginning to match.

The truth is Dungeons & Dragons is simply an intellectualized and quantified version of a game we all play as kids: “Let’s pretend”. The game made it socially acceptable to be an adult who was just as interested in taking on other more interesting and escapist lives. It is improvisational theater without the audience; an exercise in learning to think as someone else. There have been numerous scientific studies that conclude that roleplaying leads to increased empathy and social awareness, a true psychological benefit to players and Game Masters alike.

However, the real value of Dungeons & Dragons is in its ability to create persistent friendships and camaraderie. The cooperative nature of the game emphasizes teamwork, which establishes a permanent bond between the people at the table. There are gaming groups that have been playing the same characters in the same campaign for thirty years. D&D facilitates shared memories that while fictional, are still intensely personal. It’s not uncommon to reminisce about the time you rolled high enough to ride a lava shark across the Nine Hells of Baator. This sense of ownership over the experience of the game is the foundation of some of my closest friendships and that is a story you will here all across the gaming community. For outsiders, it’s easy to see roleplaying as silly and immature; but typically that comes from a place of ignorance. Dungeons & Dragons is one of the best and most innovative ways to spend time with friends that mankind has ever thought up.

Even beyond the table, D&D has been influential. Modern video roleplaying games like Mass Effect, Fallout, World of Warcraft and any number of turn-based projects rely heavily on the ideas pioneered by Gygax and Arneson. The only difference is that the video games do the math for the player. More and more, the term “RPG elements” is bandied about in the least likely of places: Call of Duty’s multiplayer, WWE’s character creator, Grand Theft Auto’s vehicle customization. It’s a genre that has influenced and bettered other genres; an extremely rare achievement.

This game, developed by two men in their basements through snail mail, transformed the way that people play. Dungeons & Dragons has been a pop culture phenomenon that has lasted longer than most tabletop games could ever hope to. Its longevity is a testament to its ability to attract new players regardless of the age of the idea. D&D is a fertile ground for creative people to explore a narrative together; a unique medium that while inspired by Tolkien, has transcended the source material and become something even greater. From the friends we’ve made to the games it’s inspired to the strides it’s made to make gaming culture acceptable by the mainstream, Dungeons & Dragons will forever be a tool for those who love to let their imagination’s run wild.

Here’s to another forty years.   

8 Genres and Properties That Deserve a Good Tabletop RPG

8 Genres and Properties That Deserve a Good Tabletop RPG

High fantasy, space opera, post-apocalyptic dystopia, gothic horror; these are the realms of the modern tabletop roleplaying game. There are quite literally dozens of game systems in each of these genres, all attempting to reinvent the wheel. Because let’s face it – any nerd worth his salt loves Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, or at least the basic ideas that these properties espouse. We all want to carry a sword and slay monsters, to fly a spacecraft through the emptiness of space, to prove that we can survive the zombie apocalypse.

But these established genres are limiting and they also exclude groups of people who may otherwise be interested in giving tabletop gaming a try. I think its time for young and innovative developers to start looking beyond the traditional boundaries of the RPG, to really explore the endless history of human cultural output for new ideas.

These are just a few of my suggestions.


Hard Science Fiction

Despite a long history of science-fiction games, most remain staunchly in the dominion of space opera and cyberpunk, genres more concerned with adventure and intrigue than the deep, philosophical questions of speculative fiction. I’ve often wanted to play around in Philip K. Dick’s repressive, paranoid, psychedelic dystopias; world’s that are shiny and clean on the outside, but ripe with corruption and mystery. I want a game that forces me to contemplate my existence and the question that permeates Dick’s work: “What is reality?” This metaphysical postulate could be the inspiration behind some amazing game mechanics, forcing the players’ to be skeptical of the information their receiving from the Gamemaster and allowing for mind-bending plot scenarios. This kind of game wouldn’t be for everyone, it would be serious and intellectual, but could also be insanely fun in the hands of the right group.


Western

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Tabletops’ love to add elements to the classic American western - zombies, steampunk, and magic – but I haven’t found a single game that gives me the same electric feeling that a Peckinpah or Leone film does. Western’s are the great myths of America and if Tolkien built a world around European folklore, than I don’t see why a game developer couldn’t do the same for the heroes and villains of the Wild West. Red Dead Redemption brought the genre back into popular consciousness and proved that gamers are hungry for the dusty roads, wide brimmed hats, and rugged lawlessness it brings with it. But video game success hasn’t translated onto gaming tables and that’s unfortunate. It might not be as conducive to long-term campaigns, but my mind races at the thought of getting a band of outlaws together to raise hell in the closest mining town.


American Gods

Neil Gaiman is probably the best fantasy writer alive today and American Gods is his magnum opus. Set on the winding back roads and tourist traps of the American Midwest, the novel is a tale of the gods of the old world – Odin, Anansi, Anubis – fighting for their existence against the gods of the new world – The Internet, Mass Media, Technology. It’s a phenomenal examination of the American psyche, fused with an imaginative modernization of common mythological tropes. It’s practically begging for a game developer to come along and bring its world to life. Players’ could take control of any figure from world folklore, predominantly in a human form that would keep them hidden in plain sight. Magic would be rare and understated; combat would take a backseat to intrigue and exploration.

And with a few tweaks, it might be possible to bring Gaiman’s Sandman universe into the fold, even Neverwhere. Somebody make this happen!


Wrestling

I haven’t watched wrestling since I was a little kid, but in the early millennium there was an internet trend known as “e-wrestling”: groups of players’ building their own over-the-top athletes to compete against each other in text-based matches. It was really my introduction to the world of roleplaying. Thus, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to have a tabletop game that would allow for my old tag team – The Value Shoppers – to bring their particular brand of hardcore frugality back into my life. I can picture large groups of friends’ getting together to talk trash, to create elaborate storylines, to compete against each other by tossing dice on a table. Championships won and lost, friends’ betrayed, all of the drama that makes roleplaying games worthwhile. Mechanically, matches could be particularly interesting, creating rules that simulate the ebb and flow of a great wrestling competition. It would also have the added bonus of bringing sports fans into tabletop community. +2 to Accessibility.  


Romantic Comedy

Hear me out on this one. There aren’t many roleplaying games built for two players, but I think it would be interesting to explore the dynamics of human relationships inside of a game system. Imagine that you’re a couple, looking for something unique to do on your weekly date night. What better way to introduce your significant other to the wonders of gaming than to replicate the cinematic romance of Before Sunrise or Cinema Paradiso? How about the gut-busting comedy of Annie Hall, Knocked Up, or His Girl Friday. This genre is awash with common links that could be built into a loose, casual roleplaying game. I have no idea how the details would pan out, but telling a funny, romantic story together would enhance the relationship of any couple with an overactive imagination.


Kaiju

This is a bit of a pre-emptive strike on my part, because Pacific Rim is on its way this summer and Gareth Edwards Godzilla remake is on its way next summer. It’s always difficult to predict cultural trends, but if these films’ take off, the Kaiju genre could be in for a pop cultural rebirth. What isn’t cool about monsters the size of a skyscraper? You tell me, because as far as I’m concerned, nothing compares. Obviously, roleplaying a Kaiju would be a bit on the simplistic side, so I’d like to see a game revolving around the defense forces designated to protect the Earth from these massive beasts. In Pacific Rim, two soldiers have their minds linked to control gigantic war machines in an effort to quell the threat. Imagine if two players had to synchronize their dice rolls to perform insane combos against a GM controlled monstrosity. Another player could be the engineer in the hull of the robot, holding the whole thing together. Perhaps a fourth could be the General on the ground coordinating the military assault. All of this could lead to some incredibly unique game design, pushing the industry just a little farther forward.     


Mass Effect

I was hesitant to put this on the list, because it’s a no-brainer. There’s already a published Dragon Age RPG, so I’m not sure why BioWare hasn’t thought to take their flagship product – Mass Effect - in the same direction. It’s arguably the most detailed science fiction universe of this generation, a framework for an infinite supply of storytelling. Its focus on choice and consequence could give players and GMs tons of new tools for roleplaying; and that’s what I would want to be the focus. Yes, Mass Effect is predominantly an action shooter, but it’s those intimate moments with the characters whom become your friends’ – and the way in which you manage those relationships – that make the property what it is. Giving players’ options to create fully fleshed out characters and placing them in legitimately threatening situations, where death is only a heart-beat away, feels like a Mass Effect game.

And BioWare, if you’re listening, I’m sure I’m not the only person who would play this. You have a legion of fans who are waiting for their opportunity to mingle in your expansive universe. Give it to them.


Disney

Initially, my idea was for a Toy Story RPG. What better way to introduce kids to tabletop gaming then to let them use actual toys as props and miniatures? But as this idea coalesced, I began to realize that there is wealth of great material that Disney as a company could provide to the hobby. It’s a company that is built upon childhood nostalgia; and a company that likes to diversify the products it offers to consumers. So, why not offer a tabletop roleplaying game that parents and kids could share with each other? Like Kingdom Hearts, you could establish a universe in which all of the various Disney worlds’ exist together and from the massive catalog of Disney films’ and media, the family could explore these amazing, magical stories. You could make it incredibly simplistic, light on the math and heavy on the roleplaying. You could eliminate combat altogether in order to emphasize the whimsy and wonder of these animated worlds. You could even design the game to have rules so simple, that anyone who’s ever played a board game could understand them. It could be like an interactive bed-time story.

Ultimately, it could serve as an introduction to the hobby of gaming, without the daunting nature of some of the more advanced titles. Kids already love to pretend, so Disney could give them a game that emphasizes this kind of play and that allows parents to return to the mindset of a child. It’s incredibly unlikely that Disney would ever even consider something like this, but if they ever did, I’d be the first in line to try it out.    

10 Days, 10 Games, 10 Dollars

10 Days, 10 Games, 10 Dollars

It’s odd to think that Microsoft was one of the first majors companies to really get behind the indie game movement. It’s always been such a monolithic corporation - one of the shining diamonds on the crown of the tech industry. But in 2004, Microsoft announced XNA, a game development tool for students and independent studios – downloadable for free. It would be released to the community in 2006 and by 2008, would have a full suite of creative options that would allow users to sell their games on Xbox Live. The intention was to build a space where people would feel free to experiment with a career in gaming; to level the playing field, so that even those without much experience could have their game played by thousands’ of people.

 It was a grand idea, perhaps too grand.

The “Indie” section of Xbox Live goes unnoticed by a multitude of gamers, but there is really no better place to find small, quirky games by young and talented designers. I’ve always promised myself that one day I would dive headlong into the pile of content it provides, if only to see if Microsoft’s gamble was worthwhile. I happen to have 800 Microsoft points in my account, so I’m challenging myself to play ten games in ten days. I’ve done my research and found the cream of the crop of what XBLIG has to offer. Time to go down the rabbit hole… 


Day One: “Hypership: Out of Control”

Stop. Stop reading this article and do as I say. Go to Xbox Live, find Hypership: Out of Control, download it and play it. There’s nothing that I can write on this field of digital characters that can in any way compare to the pure, adrenaline-rush fun that this game exudes effortlessly. Maybe this is hyperbole, but I don’t think so.

Hypership is reminiscent of classic top-down flight shooters like Galaga, Asteroids, or 1942. You play as a spacecraft, hurdling through space, blasting past obstacles and collecting coins. It seems like a simple enough premise, but the real genius of the gameplay is its gradual increase of speed. As you make your way through each of the ten waves of barriers, your ship picks up in velocity. Each level increases the maximum speed that you can go, while simultaneously introducing more difficult obstacles for you to face. You are quite literally out of control and the only way to slow down is to grab small clock tokens or crash your ship. However, those brief moments of respite don’t last long.

This is a game that you have to play over and over to get right. It’s challenging, but not frustrating. In fact, it’s a joy to play because of the sheer variety packed within its simplistic facade. There are numerous modes to experiment with – from your standard “three lives and than your dead” Galaga approach to a more hardcore, “one life, make the most of it” play through. My favorite was a coin countdown, where you have to manage how many coins you collect as you race through the level, because if they tick down to zero – you’re finished. There are even some aesthetic options that allow you to play the levels in reverse or change the background from a stark black and white, to a wavy, psychedelic color pattern.

Add to this successful formula competitive multiplayer for up to four friends and you’ve got an absolutely winning combination. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with anyone else to play the game, but I have a feeling it would be an absolute blast. There would even be some strategy as players with the star power-up could drastically speed up the action for everyone else without warning.

The production quality is pretty solid for a XBLIG title, sticking with a minimalist NES approach. Pixel Art has made a huge comeback in the last few years, but this game isn’t necessarily following the trend, so much as it is aware of its own graphical limitations. It doesn’t need to be anything but an 8-bit title. The music might be the strongest aspect of Hypership outside of the gameplay: it’s catchy and exciting, propelling you forward as your craft comes closer and closer to oblivion. Each successive wave has a new musical quality and I particularly enjoyed how the tempo changed with the maximum speed of the level.

You really owe it to yourself to play this game. I wish that Microsoft would’ve assisted with a marketing budget and put it on the main XBLA page, because I truly believe that Hypership earn its place amongst the best of that service. It’s a funny, challenging, hair-raising experience that everyone deserves to get their hands on.

Tomorrow: Loot Quest II


Day Two: “Loot Quest II”

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 The thought of playing any game besides Hypership today is rather daunting. Truthfully, all I care about in the world at this moment is collecting as many “awardments” as possible and getting past the fifth wave. It’s that good people. Buy it.

But alas, the name of this column is “10 Games, 10 Days” and Loot Quest II has been sitting on my hard drive for roughly a week. It was actually the impetus for the idea. I was intrigued by the fact that it gave off the same visual vibe as 3D Dot Game Heroes – an experience I enjoyed from top to bottom. I wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to hate this game.

Let’s address my biases up front.

I was an English minor in college. I discovered this purely because I was taking so many writing classes and ignoring much of the work for my major. As such, I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar. (Yes, I’m aware that mine isn’t always perfect, but I’m an artist, damn it.) If you’re building a game that relies heavily on text-based conversations, it might be a good idea to include the occasional period or comma. Exclamation points (!!!!!!) aren’t the only way to end a sentence. It also might be prescient to spell check the game before you release it to the general public. There’s no excuse for “Granpa”. Shhh…there isn’t.

Aesthetically, the game does have a lot in common with 3d Dot Game Heroes, but it’s a bit watered-down compared to its ancestor. Still, some of the character designs are interesting, particularly the higher level monsters. However, it was difficult for me to separate the art design from the constant pop-in that plagued this build of the game. I’m not asking for a perfect technical experience from an indie, but when the trees directly in front of me take a few seconds to load, it’s a bit distracting. The HUD is also a source of visual issues, because much of it is just too small. Even on a 47” TV screen, I couldn’t really see my inventory. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of your menus – as well as the dialogue – are placed on the upper left hand corner of the screen. It’s a rather unusual choice that only serves to frustrate the player. I also couldn’t get over the use of fonts: Comic Sans in a video game? I’m sure I saw it in there somewhere.

Under the hood, Loot Quest II isn’t much better. While the basic Zelda-like mechanics work fine, they aren’t particularly fun. Enemies have an annoying tendency to swarm the player, overwhelming my character even early in the game. They also had the common trait of attacking me at the worst possible time: I’m all for open-world freedom, but don’t let the boar kill me while I’m trying to talk to my “Granpa” about a fetch quest. That’s just fucking rude. I have to be honest in saying that I didn’t dig deep enough into the game to find better weaponry or loot. Perhaps that would’ve changed my perception, but honestly, I just couldn’t get over the rudimentary spelling and grammar errors.

Loot Quest literally feels like it was made by a crazed kindergartener; and not in “Hey, that kids’ got a great imagination!” kind of way. It’s unfortunate, because in the hands’ of someone with a bit more ambition and a strong sense of detail, it could have had a lot of potential. As it is, I’ll stick with Hypership.

Wave 8, motherfuckers! High score!

Tomorrow: Escape Goat   


Day Three: Escape Goat

Much like my days of playing sports’ games, my XBLIG experiment has had a strike out and a home run – one after the other. Loot Quest made me rethink the whole idea, practically eliminating all of the good will that Hypership had so fervently built. Luckily, Escape Goat came along to ease my worries.

It’s difficult to admit, but for me, a lot of any piece of media’s appeal is contained in its title. I came to most of my favorite movies and songs because I was intrigued by what they were called, they spoke to me. Despite being hailed my many journalists as the pinnacle of Xbox’s indie experience, Escape Goat just never captured my imagination. I can’t help but wonder if that’s what has kept it from garnering more mainstream acclaim, because the game is certainly worthy of it. It could easily have been one of the “Summer of Arcade” titles during its release year.

It’s a game of that high quality, a game that could’ve been right at home as a classic of the NES era. And yet, it’s difficult to describe and even more difficult to sell to those with a less than open mind. I’ve tried, but I’ll try again.

At its core, Escape Goat is a clever combination of 2d platformer and puzzler. You are cast as a dark blue goat, locked inside of an enormous prison and tasked with escaping its cavalcade of barriers and traps. The initial concept is simple enough: trigger switches to manipulate the level layout and discover the path to the door to the next room. Quickly, new elements are added: exploding barrels, fast-moving conveyor belts, fire-spewing reapers. It surely sounds like average platforming fare, but these devices are implemented in ways you wouldn’t expect and the ever-shifting environment leads to surprises around every corner. Escape Goat requires a careful, experimental approach and encourages persistence, even in its most challenging sequences.

You aren’t alone in your quest and what could be considered a subtle addition to gameplay is also Goat’s most interesting mechanic. Early in the game, you meet a mouse who quickly becomes your constant compatriot. He’s small enough to squeeze through passageways you couldn’t otherwise access and can be tossed into the air to move along high ceilings. But the mouse’s most flashy trick comes in the select rooms where he finds a suave magic hat that allows him to teleport and switch places with the goat. This was such a smooth, fascinating mechanic, that I found myself wishing that there were more occasions for me to use it. You could build an entire game around this one press of a button; but in Escape Goat, it’s just one of many ways to solve the puzzle.             

I didn’t get a chance to try it yet, but Escape Goat also expands its value by including a tool to create your own levels. With the sheer variety of obstacles throughout the game, there are probably plenty of ideas the developers left on the cutting room floor and giving the player the opportunity to add to the experience is pretty wonderful. It reminded me of the wonder that overcame me as a kid when I discovered the customization features in Excite Bike. The only complaint I have is that it doesn’t appear to have any Live functionality, which means there’s no way to share your work with the world. It might be a bit time consuming to build a puzzle that only you’ll ever be able to play.

I’m glad that Escape Goat came along to brighten my mood. It’s a cerebral, intellectual game that keeps the mind sharp and really manages to turn many of gaming’s most common tropes on their head. If only I could get over the name…

Tomorrow: Cthulu Saves the World


Day Four: Cthulu Saves the World

This one has to be my fault. I just felt like Cthulu Saves the World was kind of…meh.

It probably has something to do with the fact that I have absolutely no nostalgic connection to classic RPGs. It just wasn’t a genre that entered my gaming consciousness as a kid, primarily because I never owned a SNES or a Playstation. I was perfectly happy with platformers and adventure games. The closest frame of reference I have is the Pokemon series; which still feels like it’s probably distinctly different from games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger.   

(No fanboys and girls, I won’t be playing Chrono Trigger any time soon. I know this is sacrilege.)

This doesn’t make Cthulu Saves the World a bad game; it just means that I’m probably not the audience that they’re catering to. Still, I bought the game on concept alone: all-mighty Cthulu rises from his oceanic slumber to rule the world, but a pesky wizard strips him of all his powers. In order to enact his destiny of destruction and domination, Cthulu must become a hero. It’s a hilarious premise and while the plot isn’t particularly deep, it does maintain this satirical tone. Make no bones about it; this game is making fun of JRPGs as much as it is celebrating them. Cthulu sets off on a quest that finds him saving dogs from a ninja phantom, climbing a labyrinthine tower filled with orcs and ghost knights, and defeating a stereotypical D&D party by out-heroing them. This isn’t the Great American novel, but the story does provide some genuinely laugh out loud moments.

The bulk of the gameplay isn’t particularly innovative. It stays true to its roots: a relatively large over-world map with more detailed sections to explore as you come across them. Randomized battles occur as you traipse across the 8-bit landscape and its within these battle-screens that you find some of Cthulu’s strongest and weakest elements. The monsters in the game are a mixed bag of familiar RPG faces: punk rockers, snakes, and aberrant starfish, purposefully bland to emphasize just how insane a gamers’ opponents can be within this particular genre. There’s never a point where the monsters feel particularly threatening, especially because Cthulu seems to level up every fifteen-to-twenty minutes or so. The combat graphics are rather dull and uninspired; and the players’ party remains conspicuously off-screen, leaving these moments of violence feeling anti-climactic.

However, I was impressed with the sheer speed of the turn-based combat. It never felt overly complex. Potions heal all of your hit points. Tech attacks deal more damage than regular attacks. Enemies’ stats are on the screen for you to be able to see your own progress. The fast pace of the combat was really what kept my attention throughout and I honestly believe that Japanese developers could learn a few things from the Cthulu team. Fluidity and ease of use are key tenants in the turn-based world and this game has them in spares. I guess I just wish that the attacks had a bit more of a visual impact on my opponents.

I really can’t dissuade anyone from playing Cthulu Saves the World, because it really is a hysterical tribute to a style of game that millions of people love. You might adore it and I can understand the appeal, because I found myself doing spit takes on my couch at the ridiculous nature of it all. The premise alone is worth the buy, but I guess I don’t have any place in my heart for JRPGs.

It’s a sad realization, but I’ll push through it. I still haven’t gotten passed Wave 8 in Hypership.

Tomorrow: Apple Jack        


Day Five: Apple Jack

I’m not sure what these poor pandas did to deserve this. Or the washing machines for that matter.

Apple Jack is a fucking weird game. It also happens to be a fucking good game; a pretty unique slice of the XBLIG pie. Just when you thought that a goat escaping from prison was the most bizarre thing in the marketplace, you meet Jack – the apple headed sprite that bounces his way across dozens of surreal stages named after English towns. That’s the idea.

I think.

I’m not really sure.  

But it’s awesome.

It’s polished from the very beginning. I’m not one to fall for a fancy start screen, but man, I was taken from the moment the game booted up. There’s an irreverent silliness that makes Apple Jack feel like playing a Monty Python sketch. It’s idiosyncratic in a way that never alienated me as a player, but instead drew me in. The art style feels straight out of an educational game from the mid-90’s (Math Blaster is written all over this sucker), it’s bright and colorful and welcoming. Apple Jack kept my attention because it was a joy to explore and revel in its atmospheric, calming environment. I’ve been really excited by meditative game experiences like Fez lately, so this was right in my wheelhouse; at least for a while.

There is a distinct moment where when the game becomes almost brutally difficult. It’s a matching game at its core, choosing two similar enemies and tossing them at each other to make them explode. They might be pandas or astronauts or spiked pillars and sometimes they’re surrounded by colorful bubbles that have to be matched as well. Once you’ve cleared a stage of all the matching elements, you continue on to the next. It sounds simple enough, but eventually there are stages where you are flooded with enemies and you have to navigate through them without touching them – which results in a rather loud and taunting “DEAD” plastered across the screen. You have to be incredibly precise with your movements and sometimes I found myself wondering if Jack was dying so much because I was a terrible player or because the game wasn’t quite tweaked to perfection. Still, the level design is pretty phenomenal and while my frustration was palpable, it wasn’t enough for me to quit playing outright. It was like hunting for all of the interesting things the developer could do with such a straightforward mechanic; and I was impressed by the range of experiences Apple Jack had to offer.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games’ brilliant sound design. Audio is a common downfall of indie games, because often they’ll slap on a haphazard chiptune and use sound effects that mimic pre-established norms. Apple Jack feels familiar, but the creators’ are as playful with the soundscape as they are with the gameplay. It’s rare that a mellow guitar tune is the backdrop for any game and here it really helps build upon the pervasive light-hearted mood at the heart of Apple Jack. Even during its most frustrating moments, the soft strums are there to provide you respite and keep you from flying off the rails. The subtle whispering of the word “Go…” at the beginning of each stage is also a clever touch, providing encouragement to the weary player who has managed to kill Jack one too many times.

Apple Jack is far from perfect, but the only criteria I require for an indie experience is genuine fun. I really fell in love with the strange world and unusual characters. I only wish that I didn’t die just before finishing so many stages. But a few minor irritations is a small price to pay for a game this good. Apparently there’s a sequel and I’ll probably pick it up as soon as I’m done writing this sentence.

Purchased!

Tomorrow: Dark


Day Six: Dark

By the time I finish writing this article, you could’ve finished Dark. This is going to be a brief one, folks.

Dark is a phenomenal experiment, but I’m not sure I’m willing to call it a great game. It’s certainly the ancestor of more complete experiences like Limbo, using dynamic lighting effects to immerse the player in a dark, almost monotone world. The title says it all, Dark has a black and white color palette and often, the only white you can see is the eyes of your amorphous avatar. Beams of light are typically off in the distance and cast wide shadows that distort the environment. It can be disorienting and even confusing at first, but after a bit of trial and error, each stage is self-explanatory. The soft piano progressions and ambient drones only deepen the mystery. The verisimilitude is palpable.

Dark really does stir some emotions, but its over so fast that it’s hard to say what those emotions are. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the experience, because they advertise it as a short piece of media, but I did find myself wanting more. There’s a moment towards the end of the game that’s really exciting; it feels as though it’s building to something much larger, much more meaningful. Absolutely beautiful colors start to slowly make their way into the background. Grand machinery is built. The game really starts to breathe. And then the credits rolls.

It’s a damn shame too, because there’s a production value to Dark that’s rare amongst its XBLIG peers. It feels honest and could’ve grown to be an amazing abstract narrative along the lines of Braid – it has those same personal touches – but instead comes across as a glorified tech demo. A little more ambition could have gone a long way.

For my purposes, it was a well spent twenty minutes that then allowed me to get a head start on tomorrow’s game, Dead Pixels, which I can already tell is going to be one of the best of the bunch. I also needed to finish up Costume Quest, but that’s a story for another day.

Is Dark dark? Yes, Dark is dark. It’s solid, but unfinished.   

Tomorrow: Dead Pixels        


Day Seven: Dead Pixels

Fucking zombies, man. Sometimes I feel like the real apocalypse won’t happen when the dead rise from the grave, but when the media is completely infested with zombie-related content. It’s everywhere; ultra-violence that chomps into the brain like a rabid mind flayer. Do you think George Romero knew what he was starting in 1968, that Night of the Living Dead would lead to such a pop cultural saturation almost half-a-century after its release? I try not to be cynical, because Telltales’ Walking Dead left such a wonderful impression on me, but it can be difficult when I feel surrounded by mediocre zombie games, films, and yes, television.

Dead Pixels is the perfect cure for this kind of pessimism. It certainly has the highest production values of any XBLIG game I’ve played so far, but more importantly it reinvigorates the zombie genre, whilst still sticking to the conventions that make it special.

I think what makes this game so unique is its incredible attention to detail. It’s not the first to use grindhouse effects to engage the player, but I would argue that it uses this aesthetic with the most insightful and thorough approach I’ve seen. The tattered film grain, the furious guitar-based soundtrack, the snack bar intermission at the half-way point of the game; Dead Pixels fuses this b-movie sensibility with a reverence for 8-bit art that really brings out the best of both styles. They compliment each other perfectly, both being remnants of a bygone era that some people still pine for.

But it’s at the microscopic level that these details become even more evident. There are dozens of Easter Eggs waiting to reward dedicated players’: gun brands are named after characters’ from Resident Evil, famous zombie creators like Robert Kirkwood find themselves as playable characters, and bunches of classics like “Big Head Mode” are ready to be unlocked. There is a depth of content outside of gameplay that makes Dead Pixels a delight, but once you get playing, you realize where the true heart of this experience is.

I’m a huge fan of games with simple mechanics that emphasize replayability. Its part of the reason I’ve been so obsessed with Hypership: Out of Control. Dead Pixels is no different. You (and a friend in co-op mode) move through a side-scrolling city, blasting away at zombie hordes until they overwhelm you. There are traders along the way in which you can upgrade your weapons and your character, providing loads of strategies through which to approach the game. Each difficulty level requires that you find safe passage across a certain number of “streets” – ten in easy mode, twenty in normal, etc, etc. The hordes grow is strength and number, and traders become few and far between, so you have to manage your ammo and health efficiently. It’s this fast-paced juggling of simple elements that give Dead Pixels its ultimate charm. The game seduces you to challenge yourself further, to plug along until you’ve found your way to the rest of the survivors. It never manages to feel repetitive or maddening; the fun-level stays consistent.

Moreover, Dead Pixels provides ample options to customize the already riveting gameplay. The three game modes are split into different “films” that are meant to compliment each others’ loose storylines: “Dead Pixels” is the basic version described above, “The Solution” is a hardcore mode that removes all traders, and “The Last Stand” is a time trial and survival mode that encourages the player to test everything they’ve learned over the course of the game. You can really dig as deep as you want, there is hours upon hours of content here. It’s insane that Xbox didn’t pick this up as an Arcade title and charge fifteen bucks for it, but you can reap the benefits by playing it for a dollar.

This might have been the biggest surprise so far; a real total package game at the heart of XBLIG. It’s easy to be skeptical, because there is a lot of total shit that came out of XNA, but Dead Pixels makes it obvious that this was a tool that developers could use to create classics. It’s unfortunate that Microsoft never put its full weight behind the program, because its possible more games of this quality could have seen the light of day. Dead Pixels is really the pinnacle of XNA’s output and I hope I’m wrong, but I think it can only be downhill from here.

Tomorrow: Crossfire II


Day Eight: Crossfire II  

Radian Games is probably the highest rated developer on XBLIG and their games are some of the best selling, so I thought that it’d only be appropriate that I dive in to at least one of their titles to see what all the fuss was about. That being said, there are a lot of games on the service that have great sales numbers purely because they’re marketed to the lowest common denominator, so you have to take popularity with a grain of salt. Crossfire II is a fun distraction, but it never quite lives up to some of the other experiences I’ve had in the last few days. I think I might have spoiled myself with higher end material, but Crossfire does its job.

If Hypership: Out of Control can be compared to Galaga, than this game is more in line with Space Invaders. It’s still your average top-down flight combat game, but your spaceship is fixed to either the bottom or the top of your screen. This is Crossfire’s definitive mechanic: you can switch at will to either side of the level to get passed the shield of the enemy vessels. As you bounce back and forth you can collect power-ups that slow down time, fill your super-weapon with ammo, and make you invulnerable. It’s pretty standard fare, but the kinetic pace of the action and the bright, neon art-style are enough to make Crossfire stand out from the crowd. At least until you realize that it’s basically Geometry Wars.

There are sixty total waves of enemies to defeat over the course of the game and as you progress, you upgrade your ship’s speed, power, health, and weaponry. While there is a degree of thought necessary to be successful in early stages, there comes a point when you become so egregiously dominant that the threat the alien attackers pose is laughable at best. I managed to defeat all sixty waves of enemies in my first try, without any previous experience and while I enjoyed toying with the methods to retool my spacecraft, none of it felt particularly significant. Ultimately, I was left with little reason to pick up the game again other than the time trial mode.

(Note to prospective developers: I don’t know anyone who is an adamant fan of time trials. Just leave them out.)

Crossfire II is great for casual players, who need a quick gaming fix before returning to their lives. However, it is light years away from the quality of the games that inspired it. I whizzed through Crossfire in about fifteen minutes and have very little desire to play it again, so with that in mind, I can’t really recommend it.

Let this be a lesson to you; in order to find the best of what XBLIG has to offer, you have to steer clear of the “Most Popular” screen. Do your research and you’ll find the greats.


Day Nine: Miasma

Most of the games that I’ve come to love on XBLIG are tight and focused experiences. Like a good haiku, the simplicity of the game is complicit to its beauty or effectiveness. Ambition is typically an admirable quality; but when working on this scale, the more a game tries to do, the less attention each aspect of the game receives. Miasma is the perfect example this. It’s filled to the brim with wonderful ideas; but because of the scope of the games’ budget, these ideas go largely unfulfilled.

I purchased Miasma - a turn-based strategy game by ESP Games – as an indie alternative to X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Tactics games are a difficult commodity to come by these days and my eyes were drawn to the aspirational graphics. Due to the limitations of the XNA software, most XBLIG developers choose to design their games around pixel art or other simplistic two-dimensional styles. Miasma takes place in a fully rendered 3D world, leading to some pretty seductive screenshots and gameplay videos. Visually, it stands heads-and-shoulders above most of the rest of the games in the Xbox Indie library. The character modeling and backgrounds are quite suitable given the resources of the developers, but the effect quickly wears thin. There’s no real cohesive detail or design to the world of Miasma. Nothing stands out. The graphical fidelity is merely a mask for a lack of artistic ideas and quickly the game’s visuals go stale.

The story is equally bland. Ripped from any number of cyberpunk tropes, a massive corporation known as Vilhelm Industries has grown so large that it has taken over every government on Earth. Everyone works for and buys from Vilhelm. As usual, a small group of rebels has woken up from their haze of their enslavement and you are the only one who can save the world from this extreme capitalist threat. It’s a bit silly and overdone, but the story does intersect well with the gameplay and provide ample enough of a reason to be shooting evil dudes in the face. It hovers in the background, not particularly threatening…or interesting. But for a buck, what else do you want?

Miasma’s saving grace is it’s tightly wound and simplistic game mechanics. The player is placed in command of a number of troops for the rebellion. Dropped onto a map, each character is given a movement and an action to complete; usually with the aim of getting to a certain point in the map without dying. Other goals and win conditions are prevalent as well, with the occasional boss fight and fetch quest filling out the game. After every character has taken their actions, a new round begins. This isn’t exactly innovative, but Miasma’s level design is clever enough to offer up a satisfying strategic experience. The animation is stiff, but the underlying gameplay is quite fun. Additionally, each character has their own statistics and powers to level up between missions. Number crunchers will have a good time maximizing each of their team members.

Ultimately, I was disappointed that Miasma never quite managed to execute its obvious vision. It’s middle-of-the-road and mediocre. Blasting away in turn-based combat was enough to get me through the whole experience, but I was constantly aware of the mundane design choices and blatantly average gameplay. Have I used enough “boring” adjectives to get across my point?

There is a sequel that might push some these ideas further, but I couldn’t bring myself to play it. Talent is hidden in this development group; I truly hope they get a budget and some extra resources to let their original concepts shine.

Next Week: Chu’s Dynasty and the Top 10 XBLIG Games       


Day Ten: Chu’s Dynasty

It’s always surprised me that more game studios haven’t used the winning formula of Super Smash Bros to inspire new experiences. Smash is one of Nintendo’s most profitable and recognizable properties; a game that streamlines the fighting genre into something more palatable for mainstream audiences. The kinetic energy remains, but gone are the complicated button combinations of Street Fighter or Tekken. Super Smash Bros revels in chaos, simplicity and imagination. These qualities have transformed what was once an experiment into a classic.

Entering in to my final week of my exploration into XBLIG, I wanted to choose a game that would fittingly end this journey. Like any gaming distribution service, XBLIG has been an even blend of mastery and mediocrity; but the finale deserved a “Bang!”

Chu’s Dynasty was one of the few stand-out games left on the service. With a technicolor art-style heavily influenced by Asian themes, Chu’s Dynasty is one of the more brazenly beautiful games made with XNA. But beyond its aesthetic qualities, the game seemed to be reaching into a mechanical territory that few more than Super Smash Bros had tread. This got my attention and wouldn’t let go.

Indeed, it’s impossible to play Chu’s Dynasty without feeling Smash’s inspiration. A multiplayer fighting game for up to four unique players, Chu’s Dynasty is a frenetic departure from some of XBLIG’s lesser titles. There are multiple gameplay options: including a single player campaign, team battles, and standard versus modes. It’s a fully functioning experience that with a little more polish and ambition could’ve probably found itself onto store shelves.

The combat itself doesn’t revolutionize the medium, but each character has a unique set of abilities at their disposal; diverse enough that the game feels different depending on whom you’re playing. Chu’s Dynasty is at its finest when the action on screen becomes almost overwhelming with fists and feet flying in a bright, almost cartoonish environment. Special moves and combinations are flashy, if a bit underwhelming, and do a ton of damage to yours opponents. You achieve victory by emptying an opponent’s health bar or by tossing them off the stage entirely. The parallels with Smash are ever present and while this is a recipe for entertainment; Chu’s Dynasty never manages to escape feeling “chunky”. Movements and animations aren’t always fluid and controller response can be slow at times. This is a minor issue, but it becomes an annoyance when you play the game on harder settings.

However, the game’s most glaring problem is one of choice. I’m not averse to limiting the number of available characters in a fighting game, especially if it means that each individual is given special mechanical attention. But frankly, Chu’s Dynasty isn’t complex enough to warrant such a small cast. You’re only given an option between one of four immortal characters (all of whom have rather indecipherable storylines). Level variety isn’t much better as there are three total stages on which to play. Before you know it, you’ve done everything there is to do; leaving Chu’s Dynasty feeling a bit empty.

But it should be reiterated that this game is cheap and fun, regardless of my criticisms. There aren’t multiplayer party games on the XBLIG service and Chu’s Dynasty could really big hit with groups. It’s just not that great on your lonesome.

For a buck, give it a shot.       


The games of XBLIG are very representative of the service itself. There are a few diamonds in the rough that truly impressed me, but most of the experiences had more ambition than quality. I wish that Microsoft had put more energy (and money) into this service, because games like Hypership and Dead Pixels are proof that XNA could produce classics. Alas, it tucked XBLIG into a corner of Live that few seemed to venture and had no system to highlight the good games from the bad. It was largely a failed experiment, that is now defunct; but that doesn’t mean some gleams of greatness didn’t come from it. The following is a rare Top 10 list ranking the experiences I had on XBLIG. The top few are absolutely worth your time and your money.

Try something new, you won’t regret it.   

Top 10 XBLIG Games from 10 Weeks, 10 Games, 10 Dollars:

  1. Hyperspace: Out of Control
  2. Dead Pixels
  3. Escape Goat
  4. Apple Jack
  5. Chu’s Dynasty
  6. Crossfire II
  7. Cthulu Saves the World
  8. Miasma
  9. Dark
  10. Lootfest II          

A Bloody Stroll Through the Woods:  The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

A Bloody Stroll Through the Woods: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is proof that we’re entering a new era of gaming. It somehow conveys the deep immersion of virtual reality without support for the Oculus Rift. Every leaf feels as though it was placed lovingly by Mother Nature. Every path could lead somewhere real and tangible. Ethan Carter is a gorgeous testament to the power of Unreal 4, but it wows with more than tech; its free-form storytelling thrives on the kind of suspense that can only be created by genuine discovery. Sleuthing through the wilds of Red Creek Valley is an iconic experience that will amaze, frustrate, compel and illuminate.

Paul Prospero is a classic Lovecraftian hero for a classic Lovecraftian tale: a man who can see things that are just out of the view of most “sensible” people. He’s ostensibly a psychic detective and well-known enough to have amassed a legion of imaginative fans that follow his reality-shattering adventures. Prospero receives regular letters from a boy named Ethan Carter, whose knowledge of the occult and arcane is disturbing for his age. As the letters grow darker in tone, the detective learns that the boy has gone missing and is inspired to use his considerable skills to uncover the truth of Ethan Carter’s fate. It’s a decision that leads Prospero to the back country roads and abandoned railroad lines of Red Creek Valley, a forest of ominous beauty. From there, he becomes a vessel for the player; a tool for exploring the hidden world beneath the grass, the dirt, and the blood.

This game had the rare effect of blurring out the world surrounding my monitor. I was transfixed by the oppressive atmosphere and mystifying soundtrack, to the point that I’d have to take regular breaks to readjust myself to reality. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter isn’t explicitly a horror game – there are no monsters stalking you through the woods – but it induces a dread that’s equivalent to walking through a house you think might be haunted. You tell yourself that there’s nothing around the next corner, but your mind is never quite convinced. There’s a subtle madness to the game that creeps under your skin and stays for days after it’s completed. The weight of its story’s tragedy makes it feel like hallowed ground and at times it can be difficult to tell where Prospero ends and you begin.

I’m sure this sounds like hyperbole; but if you come into The Vanishing of Ethan Carter with the right mindset, it will dig its hooks into you as well.

Oddly enough, there are few traditional mechanics to speak of in this game. You don’t play Ethan Carter so much as you experience it. Travelling along the overgrown trails, you search for clues to unravel the events that lead to the child’s disappearance. It doesn’t take long before you spot the hastily thrown together traps, the blood-stained train engine, or the severed legs on rusted-out tracks. But the mystery isn’t laid out clearly in front of you. Information is purposefully withheld and you’re forced to piece together the disparate elements in your mind. Prospero is aided by his unique vision, but ultimately the game refuses to hold your hand. If you miss a crucial clue, you could easily come to the wrong conclusion. This may be a bone of contention for impatient players, but is actually Ethan Carter’s defining strength. Its slow, deliberate pace allows even more time for the terror to settle in.      

This existential horror is bolstered by the game’s intense realism. I’m not one to marvel unwittingly at graphical upgrades, but The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does much more than demonstrate the power of its engine. Every perfectly placed pixel enhances player participation, conjuring the emotional resonance that makes the game so special. This immersive quality comes directly from an innovative technique that allowed developer The Astronauts to translate photographs into a digital environment.

Red Creek Valley is an amalgamation of real world locations, strung together to create the illusion of wholeness. As such, there are no repeated textures or recycled assets. The forest feels alive and natural, filled with old-growth trees that have retaken the structures of men. The trees don’t look as though they were haphazardly planted by game designers to suggest “forestness”, they seem as though they’ve been there forever. The ruins of old homes, churches, and train stations are lived-in and decaying, occasionally making the game feel like an urban exploration simulator. Lighting, animation, resolution; everything comes together perfectly.  The Vanishing of Ethan Carter looks real, but it also feels real; as if it’s somehow crossed the uncanny valley. It’s a difference that really needs to be experienced to be fathomed.   

…but perhaps that’s why I spent half my time in the game trying to take the ideal screenshot.

With its rampant attention to detail, Ethan Carter is an open-world on a small-scale. It only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to bound across its quietly disturbing landscape, yet somehow the game manages to convey a scope that dwarfs the massive environments of Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. Standing on the edge of a stone bridge, eyes retracing my steps along the lakeside cliff face, I was truly in awe of the distance I had travelled. I could practically feel my muscles aching from the journey. It’s a sensation that no other game has accurately represented; at least not in such a richly dynamic fashion. Ethan Carter feels larger than it is, explaining the calls for a “fast travel” option from many of its fans. But the perceived expanse of Red Creek Valley is as charming as it is frustrating and could become permanently soiled if The Astronauts bow down to this demand. Getting lost is part of the fun and backtracking increases immersion. There’s no need to water-down this mentally challenging experience.   

This frustration is partially due to the games “level” design: there is none. Ten distinct and interconnected mysteries are strewn about the valley, but there is nothing to notate where one set of clues begins and another ends. The player can move between stages freely, meaning that the story can easily unfold at a truncated pace. If you miss the traps at the beginning of the game, you might not have the context you need to understand the events in the stave church graveyard or the mines. Even after everything becomes clear, you’ll have to sequence together the events in a logical pattern. You’ll have to investigate some of your own theories and interpretations. Ultimately, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter takes place as much in your mind as it does your monitor. There’s a story to be told, but it’s as much yours’ as it is the boy’s.

This is the beating heart of what the game is trying to get at. Ethan is a creative kid who lets his mind wander and race; his head is always in the clouds. These stories save him as his family disintegrates and Prospero bears witness to it all. The conclusion will be talked about for ages, criticized and pulled apart and analyzed for its deep look into our collective storytelling psyche. It will probably lead to more questions than answers, but that’s the way I like my endings.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is the culminating masterpiece of a genre that’s been spreading its wings in the last few years: the first-person adventure. There is no combat to speak of, no blockbuster action pieces. Instead, the game weighs on your soul and worms its way into your mind. Like Gone Home and Ether One, the joy is in exploration and discovery; in finding that final clue to solve the case. But this game is superior in its execution and surmounts its predecessors in nearly every category. It will likely leave you feeling a bit hollow and disturbed, but it will also provoke hidden thoughts buried in the back of your head. This is the first game to perfect the essence of the natural world in digital form, but it won’t be the last. In all of its bleakness, there is a bit of light; at least for games of its kind.

Lovecraft would be proud.    

 

Score: 10/10