Book Review: SuperBetter

superbetterYou remember Jane McGonigal, right? She’s the one who blends positive psychology with game design and hopes that a game designer will someday win a Nobel Prize. Her 2015 book SuperBetter extends that concept and explains, more or less, how to apply gamification to dealing with adversity and challenge.

The concept, and the SuperBetter app that goes with it, came after McGonigal suffered a concussion from which she had great difficulty recovering. The first part of the book talks about positive psychology and video games, describing how video games are often helpful and healthy. The second section describes several rules for “being gameful” in your approach to challenges and all the other shit life can throw at you. Appropriately, these generally follow a video game motif, instructing you to adopt quests, seize power ups, and beat the bad guys.

Peppered all through this in asides and inserts are “Quests” where McGonigal asks you to take a moment to do something that illustrates what she’s talking about and increases some type of what she calls “resilience.” You may be asked to increase your social resilience by sending a kind note to someone, or improve your emotional resilience by looking out a window for a few minutes. Most of these little quests struck me as somewhat twee and goofy, but they seem pretty inseparable from the book’s methods and messages. The section of the book contains several applications of these quests and other lessons for specific “adventures” or things to do with the SuperBetter system. Think of them as playlists for particular moods or goals.

MgGonigal also inserts lots of “SuperBetter stories” into the chapters, which are testimonials and correspondences from SuperBetter users. I skimmed over all these, since they generally served to just repeat the lessons I had already read. I think they would have worked better if there were fewer of them and they had been incorporated directly into the main text.

Overall, I can see why this book is popular. The SuperBetter system is alluring and applicable to everyone, and apparently it works for at least some people. That’s awesome. McGonigal also has convivial style and seems like the kind of person you want cheering for you or helping you get through something tough –which is exactly what she does through this book. And I’m happy to say that despite the whole self-help aspect of the book and the eye rolling nature of some of the “quests,” McGonigal frequently drops some science by referencing proper research done at universities and published in peer reviewed scientific journals.


Limbo is one of those video games in 2010 that people wouldn’t stop talking about. Some people just couldn’t seem to rave enough about this atmospheric side scroller where you guide a silhouette of a boy through dangers and puzzles and how the game does so much with so little. I finally got around to playing it, and frankly I’m not quite sure what all the buzz was about.

Well, that’s not completely fair. Just about all the praise for Limbo’s looks is well deserved even though –or perhaps because– it’s completely devoid of color and almost without a musical score. It does a lot to create a sense of dread and gloom with just shapes and the saturation slider pinned at zero. And the minimalist mentality extends to the story, which is so scarce as to not actually exist –you’re just a lad who wakes up in a dark forest where the only way out is littered with deadly obstacles and various creatures bent on your grisly murder. It’s moody and mysterious and captivating, so it’s safe to say that Limbo is pretty great, artistically.

The early levels of the game are the best.

Unfortunately the game part didn’t reach quite the same heights. It’s frustrating not being able to figure out a puzzle. But it’s WAY more frustrating to be perfectly capable of figuring out a puzzle but then be unable to execute on the solution because doing so requires precise timing. And it’s most frustrating of all to think you’ve figured out a puzzle, fail repeatedly at executing the solution, decide that your solution was wrong, then look up the answer on the Internet only to find that you WERE right after all despite repeatedly hurling this little boy to his doom. The puzzles in Limbo weren’t all that difficult to figure out –I actually only had to look up the answer to one, and I turned out to have had the right idea all along as described above. But too often my enjoyment of them was clipped short by fighting with the game’s controls and timing. Maybe this is inherent to all platformers and I should just try sucking less, but there you go.

There’s also the issue that Limbo starts off strong and then sputters towards the end. The opening levels in the wilderness where you’re stalked by a giant spider are awesome and really draw you into this little kid’s situation. It’s mysterious and the puzzles feel organic –they’re either environmental hazards or traps left by foes you can see. The game eventually turns to more urban environments, though, and while they offer chances for more varied puzzles they start to feel pretty contrived. By the time you’re flipping switches to raise platforms and reverse gravity, Limbo feels less like a kid trapped in a mysterious wilderness and more like a kid trapped in a video game.

Better get the timing on this jump right...

But don’t think that Limbo is a BAD game for all that. It’s actually pretty good even if not the best game EVAR. If you think you might like it, try the demo (on Xbox Live Arcade). If you like that, you’ll probably like the rest of the game well enough to get your money’s worth. If you don’t like it, you’re not.

She makes this papa geek proud…

Earlier today Sammy and I S-ranked (100%’ed, FC’d, whatever) Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 on the Xbox 360. All the red bricks. All the gold bricks. All the students in peril. All the crest pieces. All the character tokens. “True Wizard” on every level. All the achievements. All the secret levels. EVERYTHING. BEHOLD THIS UNDOCTORED PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE:

100 Percent Perfect Potter. Click to embiggen.

This is a feat that took us several months of effort. She and I would play this game together for 30-45 minutes at a time, 3 or 4 times a week, usually between dinner and bathtime. It’s the kind of thing that flies in the face of outdated attitudes towards video games as mindless time wasters played by people incapable of anything requiring social interaction. Full completing the game with another person playing cooperatively required imagination, communication, logical thinking, persistence, long-range goal setting, and a lot of fun. Sam learned all the mechanics involved, ranging from simple platforming to cataloging which characters had which special abilities that were required for what situations. She and I would sometimes talk about the game when we weren’t playing it, and she often wanted to engage in imaginative play with her sister, pretending to be characters from the game. And it has continued to feed her interest in reading the books.

Sure, I would never want gaming to comprise 100% of her leisure time, but I can say without a doubt that this game (and others) have given she and I an experience that both of us will remember fondly for the rest of our lives.

And I got her Kirby’s Epic Yarn for the Wii for her birthday. I can’t wait!

The Psychology of Horror

If you can get your hands on the new issue of GamePro magazine (#267, December 2010 with Diablo 3 on the cover), check out my article on the psychology of horror. The timing with Halloween was better a week or so ago when the issue first came out.

Aaaaaaaahhh! Why is this so scary? Aaaaaaaahhh!

This is another one of those topics that I was unsure of when the editor at GamePro asked me to tackle it. Not only did I not t really know much about the topic, I’m not even a fan of horror movies or games in particular. I’ve never seen a Saw movie or any other “gore pr0n” in my life, nor do I want to. Still, that’s why they call it “research” so I hit the library and found some more informed experts in the fields of psychology, media studies, and communications to help fill in the blanks. I got some great material, and the article turned out to be a lot of fun to write.

I turned Bobo the Quote Monkey loose on the article, and he returned with this:

Bobo want banana.

So I gave him a banana, reminded him about the performance standards in his contract, and sent him back. This time he came up with the following:

A second set of explanations for horror’s delight posits that we hate the horror, but like the proverbial man who bangs his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops, we love the relief that comes at the end.

Excitation transfer theory, credited earlier with enabling spooky soundtracks to do their job, has also been hypothesized to give us a kind of “thank god that’s over” high. “People become physically aroused due to the fear they experience during the media event –and then when the media event ends, that arousal transfers to the experience of relief and intensifies it,” Sparks says. “They don’t so much enjoy the experience of being afraid –rather, they enjoy the intense positive emotion that may directly follow.”

Other explanations for the appeal of horror are cited, plus I also ruminate on what the research tells us about scary video games in particular. I really don’t have any feedback on how well these GamePro pieces are being received, so if you’re reading them, post a comment and tell me what you think.

Also, I couldn’t find an image of the relevant magazine cover anywhere. If you find one of those, let me know, too.

The Psychology of Video Games: An Update

As I noted before late last year I decided that my blogging project for 2010 would be writing one article a week about the overlap of psychology and video games. Thus was born.

While the site hasn’t exactly “blown up” mega huge, it has developed a readership that’s sizeable enough to surprise me. At first I halfway expected it to exist purely for my own pleasure and maybe a few friends and the random stranger or two, much like But soon I was getting comments and e-mails from real game developers and other people who said they really dug it.

So I kept at it and started putting not insubstantial amounts of effort into writing the weekly articles. In addition to drawing on books I had read, I actually started going to my local university library and doing research in scientific psychology journals. It was cool, because I love writing, I love learning new stuff, and enough people seemed to appreciate it.

A few months ago the Editor in Chief at GamePro contacted me to tell me that he liked what I was doing and that he wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing some freelance writing for the GamePro print magazine. I jumped at the chance, as writing this stuff for a “real’ magazine had been one of the things I had been daydreaming about since I started.

My first article, which is on the psychology of anonymity, is now appearing in the August issue of GamePro, which has this cover:

I also have a second article written, submitted, and in the pipeline for September’s issue, plus I’m just now finishing up a third article for October. Woo!

So while the GamePro thing is one of the biggest things to come out of this little blogging experiment, it’s not the only cool outcome. Here’s some others:

  • I partnered with my friends at GameSpy to lecture on the psychology of games at a conference in Seattle
  • I made Internet friends with another psychology Ph.D. who works for Valve Software, one of my favorite game developers.
  • Actress and nerd celebrity Felicia Day tweeted about one of my articles, resulting in a 1000% spike in traffic.
  • A graduate student in psychology took one of my off-the-cuff ideas (the effect of time distortion on the enjoyment of a game) and is using it as the basis for his dissertation
  • I’ve been interviewed by a handful of people writing about psychology and video games for other outlets
  • A marketing consulting firm interviewed me about video games to tap my supposed expertise on the topic (I did my best)
  • One of my articles was discussed on one of my favorite video game podcasts, Idle Thumbs.
  • started syndicating some of my articles for reprinting on their website
  • A literary agent contacted me asking me if I’d like to write a book proposal that he could evaluate and maybe shop around

So, at this point, I’d call the blog a success –much more of one than I ever experienced with So I’m going to obviously follow through with the rest of the weekly updates for 2010, and most likely beyond. At this point I’m thinking seriously about making 2011 the year of that book proposal; here’s to hoping things continue on the same trajectory.

Book Review: Grand Theft Childhood

I came across Lawrence Kuthner and Cheryl Olson’s Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth about Violent Games (And What Parents Can Do) while doing some research for an article on the psychology of video games. The book is the end result of a research program by the authors, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice weirdly enough, focusing on violent video games and kids. Kuthner and Olson claim to be impartial researchers who don’t have any particular axe to grind on the issue, unlike activists, politicians, professionals working in the games industry, or gamers themselves. Their aim, they say, was to let their data do the talking.

The data in question are those collected by the researchers from surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews with kids and their families. Right away any reader who has taken anything beyond a Research Methods 101 class could tell you that this is a limiting factor –self report data are subject to a range of biases and using only one or two methods of data collection represents a substantial flaw in any program. But that’s not to say that the data are worthless or that the conclusions the researchers (who readily cop to these limitations) draw from them can’t be used to inform continuing research or draw some conclusions with the right caveats.

And the claims that come out of all this make a certain amount of sense: kids are vulnerable to some of this stuff, but bullying and warped senses of gender or race roles are more likely outcomes than sociopathic killing sprees. Some kids are more vulnerable than other on account of good old fashioned individual differences. Actually, girls play and enjoy violent games, too. Kids think guns and weapons are cool, but what they really like are chances to develop skills, make choices, and interact with other people. Some games may only be single player, but kids build social relationships around them by talking about their common experiences. There is a ratings system in place (the ESRB) but it’s pretty flawed and kids are savvy about how to acquire restricted games. Anyone who has a reason to lie to you about the effects of violent games on kids and culture may very well be. That kind of stuff.

Overall, it’s not a bad read, and a pretty quick one. There are some chapters, like the one drawing parallels between the uproar over violent games to past uproars over every other media you can think of, were a little too long and turgid, and despite claims to be impartial the researchers occasionally pinned their political views onto their sleeves, it is a pretty impartial look at the topic that doesn’t toe any particular line. It’s not the last word on the subject, but I hope that other social scientists pick up on these research programs and build on them.

Game Review: Borderlands

Gearbox’s Borderlands is kind of a weird bird as far as first person shooters go. In some ways it smacks of a game that wasn’t quite 100% finished, and you get the inkling that its publisher just jettisoned it out into the wild, knowing full well that it might flop to the ground and die. It’s supposed to have role-playing elements like quests and NPCs, but the world of Pandora seems anemic and sterile, lacking in people to talk to, things to interact with, and stuff to do that’s not shooting bandits or local fauna until they die. There are NPCs standing around, but they’re soulless and by and large don’t do anything other than utter the same stock phrase. Most of the “quests” involve murdering bandits or collecting Pandora’s equivalent of Goretusk livers. The nifty sci-fi meets wild West vibe aside, it’s not very engaging.

And yet, somehow, Borderlands manages to be a ton of fun, due in part to funny writing but mostly thanks to the gameplay. The combat mechanics of aiming, shooting, and triggering special abilities just feels right, and it took a long time before it got to feeling old. The leveling up mechanic and 4 character classes also gave you some fun tactical choices to make, with different buildouts and class choices giving you many options on how to approach shooting things in the face (I myself played a soldier with emphasis on building up my deployable Scorpio turret). The “bajillions of guns” loot mechanic where the game randomly cobbles together weapons by combining different attributes is a bit oversold (I found it too mentally taxing to evaluate slight differences in weapons across so many factors), but it does add a nice incentive to keep checking treasure chests and an occasional payoff when you score something clearly better than what you’ve currently got.

One other design philosophy that I feel compelled to comment on is that Gearbox apparently started with a goal of making everything player friendly and then sprinted past that goal line into “crazy” territory. But crazy in a good way. There’s ample fast travel options, for example, and vending machines are conveniently if absurdly stationed in the wilds wherever you need them. Even getting gunned down by your foes barely rates as a minor annoyance, as you just respawn nearby and only have to take a small hit to a bank account that grows to obscene balances early in the game. It’s not very challenging, but it is FUN, and I’m all on board for that.

My New Blog: The Psychology of Video Games

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on a new blogging project for 2010. I thought that instead of doing more weekly reviews on books or movies, I’d tackle something bigger and honestly more interesting. Well interesting to me; not sure about you yet. I figure, I like psychology. And I like video games. Why not write about the psychology of video games?

So, perform clicking motions at this time to visit The Psychology of Video Games.

As I say on the “About” page, the articles on the site will use what I know of puny human psychology to answer three types of questions:

  1. Why do gamers do what they do?
  2. Why do those designing games do what they do?
  3. Why do those marketing and selling games do what they do?

I’ve already stocked the shelves with seven stories dealing with specific questions like:

So, please go check it out. If you find it remotely interesting, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed, leaving a comment, or sharing it on your favorite social media site like Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc. And click on a few of the Google Adsense ads while you’re at it. I need to renew my Xbox Live Gold membership soon.

In Which I Quickly Review a Bunch of Games

I had good intentions. I was going to start blogging up reviews of all the video games I played and posting them here for you all to ignore. I even did a few, which the laws of probability say you can eventually find by performing random clicking motions on the site. Turns out that I really didn’t have it in me, though, and I kept letting things slide in favor of the parenting updates, the book reveiws, and the 52-Movies-In-52-Weeks thingie.

So I decided to just get all caught up by doing some rapid-fire, one paragraph reviews. Here we go!

Psychonauts (Xbox)

Here we have veteran game designer and funny guy Tim Schafer’s and his development house Double Fine creating a summer camp/school for young psychic warriors, to which plucky hero Raz inserts himself. It’s a platformer with a VERY weird art style and really funny writing. I hate platformers, though, and Psychonauts reminds of why as frequently grew frustrated trying to simply move through the hub world. On the other hand, the writing and the level design are really funny. The “Milkman” level where you infiltrate some kind of weird suburbia fever dream is one of the best game levels I’ve ever encountered, and the level that parodies Godzilla movies inside the mind of a giant fish isn’t far behind.

Civilization Revolution (iPod Touch)

It’s the Civilization turn-based strategy series totally rebuilt to work on consoles, then ported to the iPhone minus multiplayer. You control one of several civilizations and try to be the best in the world through military, diplomatic, cultural, economic, or technological avenues. It’s simpler than hard core Civ games, but it’s still pretty good and it’s amazing that you can play a game like this on a freaking iPod. It strikes me as the kind of thing that you would want to take with you if you could time travel back to the 90s and wanted to utterly blow some people’s minds.

Halo 3 ODST (X360)

Yep, it’s Halo 3, minus Master Chief and plus a half-assed version of the Gears of War Horde mode. Given that, it’s still pretty good, and it’s got the best Halo single player campaign yet on account of how the designers pared down all the fat and left just set piece after set piece without long corridors to pad things out. I also loved how it handles the collectibles angle by having you seek out and find a series of audio recordings that tell a B story that’s frankly more interesting than the game’s main plotline. The game also comes with a second DVD containing the entire Halo 3 multiplayer experience, which is nice if you’re like me and don’t have that already. It’s just forehead smakingly infuriating that they didn’t include ANY matchmaking with the new Firefight multiplayer mode so that you can only play with people on your friend’s list.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (X360)

The nerdigalian was pretty down on this game, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s a third person action game where you get to play Darth Vader’s seeekrit apprentice, Starkiller. This is a name that sounds absurd until you remember that this is a world where people are named “Skywalker,” “Han Solo,” and “Darth Sidious,” at which point it still sounds absurd, but at least it’s not weird. There were major targeting and control issues, but I loved how you could just use grossly overpowered Force abilities to slap your opponents around and tear stuff up on an epic scale. The storyline and cut scenes are also pretty good.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (X360)

I’m just going to go ahead and say that this is the best game I played all year. The setup is that you’re Batman (“I’m Batman!”) at the end of a long night of apprehending the Joker and locking him up in the infamous Arkham Aslum/Prison. Only Joker takes th joint over and you end up beating the ever living daylights out of a long succession of villains and nameless thugs. But what’s really great about this game is the presentation and the Metroid-style gameplay where you gradually acquire gadgets that grant you access to different areas and secrets. Oh, and the combat is awesome. So is how the collectables are handled. And the sound. You know, just about everything about this game is awesome.

Brutal Legend (X360)

Tim Schaefer and Double Fine make another entry in this list, and this time the game is a LOT better. Imagine a world inspired by heavy metal album artwork from the 1980s and you’ve pretty much got Brutal Legend’s setting, only more rocking. The game kind of suffers from being a mish-mash of real-time strategy (on a console, yuck), open world adventure, driving, and God of War style action game, but in the end it somehow comes together because of how original and fresh everything is and how good the script is. It was just really fun despite its flaws, like how your avatar is constantly stymied by three in lips of dirt in what’s supposed to be an open world game. And whoever was in charge of the animation and “acting” on the computer generated characters in this game deserves some kind of award, because they knocked it out of the park.

Torchlight (PC)

This game is more like Diablo 2 than Diablo 2 could ever hope to be. It’s all there –the clicking, the looting, the character classes, the skill trees, the named mobs, the loot collection, the running back to town to sell the loot, the going back for more loot, even the soundtrack. Torchlight does add its own polish and improvements (your pack mule of a dog or cat for one, and a quest system that rips off that other Blizzard game for another), but it has the good graces not to even pretend to hide the fact that it’s a Diablo 2 clone with a splash of World of Warcraft. And like Diablo 2, it gets pretty repetitive pretty fast, so much so that I’m not sure I’m going to finish it. But at the budget price of $15 to $20, I certainly got my money’s worth out of it.

Whew. All caught up.

Game Review: Guitar Hero 5

When GameFly sent me Guitar Hero 5 instead of all the other more exciting games ahead of it in my queue, I grimaced. Badly. Activision has been busily bloating the market with an exasperating number of entries in the fake plastic rock genre lately, what with Guitar Hero 5, Guitar Hero Metallica, Guitar Hero Van Halen, Band Hero, DJ Hero, and probably some others I’ve blocked out. And Harmonix hasn’t helped with Rock Band: The Beatles and Lego Rock Band.

But then it occurred to me that I hadn’t played any new fake plastic rock games since Rock Band 2, and I wanted to see some of the enhancements to the game that Activision’s otherwise “punch the consumer in the throat” model has afforded them. I was actually really impressed by the enhancements, and I think it’s safe to say that track list aside this is the best music game I’ve ever played. Developers Neversoft have cleaned up the interface vastly, and gone is the awful, deformed art style that I hated so much in Guitar Hero 3. The game looks great, with more realistic yet visually interesting character models and the ability to create your own band members. The fist thing I did was recreate my band “Pavlov’s Cat,” and start plugging away at the set list.

The other really big thing that I like about Guitar Hero 5 is that they added a variety of song-specific challenges to the career mode. One song, for example, might challenge you to hit a certain number of hammer on/pull offs on guitar, while another song might ask you to only strum upwards on bass while a third song asks you to nail a certain number of phrases on vocals. There are three levels to these challenges –gold, platinum, and diamond– and beating them unlocks stuff. This adds a lot of incentive to go back and play around with the songs, especially since some of them require playing on higher difficulty levels or to play with other band members.

There are also a lot of other small changes that make total sense and that reveal a “let’s make everything as convenient as possible to the player” design philosophy. You can easily switch between guitar and bass, for example, and you can change the difficulty level of a song without backing all the way out to the song select screen. Other players can drop right in and out of songs, too, and the navigation is generally really easy.

Unfortunately the only thing I really didn’t like about Guitar Hero 5 is the set list, which coincidentally is by FAR the most important thing about a music game. Even though Neversoft made the “Thank GOD!” move of having no songs unlocked in Quickplay mode, there were maybe two or three songs in there that I actually really liked. This is where Rock Band’s focus on DLC ultimately proves to be much more consumer friendly even if they don’t put out as many new iterations of the game engine. I have hundreds of songs in my Rock Band DLC catalog, and hundreds more that I could go buy for $2 a pop if I want them. And by offering a huge catalog with weekly releases I can make sure that the vast majority of the music I have to play is stuff that I really like.

So Guitar Hero 5 is a better game mechanically, but the business model Activision and Neversoft have pursued here still makes it second fiddle. I sent it back to GameFly without buying it or any DLC songs for it.

Game Review: Modern Warfare 2 (Xbox 360)

I think that technically the full name of this game is Call of Duty 6: Modern Warfare 2 or I may just be confused by some rebranding sleight of hand but who cares? The game sold 50 hoojilion copies in its first day, and for an understandable reason: developer Infinity Ward’s last entry in this series was really, really good and Modern Warfare 2 is too.

It’s a first person shooter set in what feels like a military setting that’s just futuristic enough to feature weapons of war that are amazing but not quite at the science fiction level. The plot is like the drunken love baby of Tom Clancey and Michael Bay and is even more over the top than the first game. All hell breaks loose as various worst case scenarios from a war with old school Superrussia blow up in your face, plus there’s big explosions, gravity defying snowmobiles, sneaky sniper assassinations, nasty urban warfare in a surprising setting, and the an inverted version of the shower shootout scene from The Rock. In general, the worst thing about the game is Infinity Ward’s inability to tell a coherent storyline, as your hopscotching from one cast of character to another is often befuddling and the motivations and even actions of the major characters go without sufficient explanation. All this because Infinit Ward is doggedly exchews cut scenes and thus delivers its storytelling through rapid-fire in-game dialog and little sequences of images during the loading screens between levels. It took me two playthroughs to get a grip on what the heck was even going on, and even still there are several things that remain mysteries to me.

You know what, though? That’s my only complaint about the game. That’s IT. The gameplay itself and even the big picture are just fantastic, with one magnificent set piece after another with absolutely no fat or filler. There’s nothing about the game that’s inappropriately paced and nothing gets a chance to feel old before being replaced by something of equal but different awesomeness. There are some rumblings out there on the Internet about how the single player game is only about 5 hours long, but it’s the best 5 hours of gameplay I’ve had in a LONG time. I definitely got my money’s worth, especially since it’s good enough to go back into and play again.

And even once you do beat the single player game, Modern Warfare 2 has an incredible multiplayer to go with it. You can play “Special Ops” mode in co-op with a friend, which mostly takes segments of the single player game and challenges you to complete them under new circumstances, like killing a certain number of enemies or holding off wave after wave of attackers. It’s a lot like the challenge rooms from Batman: Arkham Asylum, except you can play them co-op with a friend.

But of course, most people going online with this game are doing it for the competitive multiplayer, and while I haven’t played that much of it I can tell you that so far it seems really robust and a lot of fun. The carrot on a stick mechanic of leveling up your multiplayer character and unlocking new weapons and abilities is still there, and it gives you a great sense of momentum and “just one more unlock…” motivation to play game after game. Even if you lose a given match, you feel like you’re accomplishing something. As you proceed you can select new buildouts with different weapons and attachments, plus you can select “perks” that give you special advantages on the battlefield, like the ability to hide from thermal scopes or faster running speed. The game also features “kill streaks” where you can unlock REALLY powerful abilities like calling in heavily armed helicopters or missile strikes if you can score a certain number of kills without dying. Fun stuff, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb in saying that this is where the longevity of the game will be.

Review: Secret of Monkey Island SE (iPod Touch)

It’s one of my great shortcomings as a gamer that I never played any of the original Monkey Island adventure games released by Lucasarts in the 1990s. This is a shame, because those games and their SCUMMy ilk essentially created the “exploration and rubbing things together” blueprint for adventure games that dominated the genre for a long time. It’s also unfortunate because they were genuinely funny and entertaining, but with the recent release of The Secret of Monkey Island Special Edition I decided to correct that.

What’s special about this Special Edition is that the developers completely redid all of the art (in a hand-painted style) and recorded sounds, music, and voice acting that wasn’t in the original game. But other than modifying the interface to work on the iPod Touch (or the Xbox 360 controller), the gameplay is completely untouched. You guide Guybrush Threepwood, a new arrival on Monkey Island who wants to become a mighty pirate. This is pure graphical adventure game material, so you walk from location to location, talk to characters, pick stuff up, and solve problems by combining, activating, or using items in your inventory.

The gameplay, well …it has not aged particularly well. The puzzles aren’t as nonsensicle as in some of the genre’s entries, but at the same time they’re not always entirely intuitive and you resort to just rubbing everything in your inventory against everything else. Either that or you can do what I did: make liberal use of the game’s built-in clue system. Just shake the iPod/iPhone and it’ll give you some text that nudges you in the right direction. Shake it again and it’ll flat out tell you what to do. Pride be damned, I used it whenever I got stumped. It’s a lot easier than hitting

Fortunately the real strength of the game is in the writing, the dialog, the characters, and the environments. Those are all top notch and they still hold up really well. TSoME isn’t bust a gut funny, but it IS consistently charming, amusing, and smile inducing. I wanted to keep playing if for no other reason to see what would happen next. It also made a great portable game, since no puzzle or interaction will take more than a few minutes.

So, Lucasarts, if you’re listening: give me more of these remakes! I will give you more money in exchange! More Monkey Isalnd would be great, though I also haer good things about Day of the Tentacle, Maniac Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Full Throttle, and Sam and Max. Any of those would be fine.

Spider: The Mystery of Bryce Manor (iPod)

Spider: The Mystery of Bryce Manor was really my introduction to an iPod Touch game that had substantial production values and a price tag where the decimal point was somewhere besides the far left. It’s fantastic, really.

The concept can be summed up as “You play a spider and you climb around an old manor spinning webs and catching bugs.” Sounds simple –and it is– but the appeal of the game is twofold. First, the controls feel really great and to me play to the iPhone’s strengths in a magnificent way. Just hold down on the screen and the spider will crawl towards your finger. If you want him to jump, just swipe your finger across the screen. Want to spin a web? Tap on Mr. Spider to make him pinch out a bit of silk, then jump. He’ll leap across the screen, leaving a line of silk behind him that sticks to whatever surface he lands upon. Repeat to make a simple geometric shape and you’ve got a web that you can crawl around on and use to capture bugs. As you progress through the game these critters get more cagey and luring them into your web or otherwise capturing them gets trickier, but you have to catch a minimum number of bugs before moving on to the next room in the manor.

The second thing I really liked about Spider is the overall presentation. The backgrounds of Bryce Manor have a very hand painted look about them, almost like watercolors or ink wash. It’s nice to look at and very well done. The Spider’s movements and bug animations also look great despite their simplicity. Perhaps most interestingly, while the game is presented mostly with a spider’s sensibilities (i.e., everything is big and the backgrounds are slightly out of focus with a narrow depth of field), the attentive human player will begin to notice details present in each level that suggest a story about the family who used to live in this run down mansion and what their fates were. It’s not essential to find all the secret areas and piece together the clues, but it’s a cool, low key narrative that’s a nice added bonus.

So, great game and perfect for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Nintendo DS)

The case (har har) of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is an interesting one. It’s the first entry in what has become a long running series for the Nintendo DS (though the original game was actually on the Game Boy Advance in Japan) and even created a couple of spin offs. Calling it a “game” doesn’t quite describe it fully; I’d probably go with something closer to “interactive fiction” because anything where 98% of the gameplay is tapping anywhere on the screen to progress endless dialog boxes doesn’t seem like a game to me.

The gist is that you play as fresh faced attorney Phoenix Wright who inherits a struggling law firm and an overly enthusiastic assistant. Phoenix tries to make due sticking up for (presumably) innocent defendants in murder cases. Each chapter in the game involves a court case and alternates between two modes of play: investigations and courtroom testimony. In the investigation bits you move around to different locations and research your case by hunting around the screen for the “hot” pixels and tapping on them to bring up sub menus with labels like “Talk” or “Examine” or “Present.” Phoenix and his plucky assistant Maya can converse with other wonky characters and present to them items and data in your inventory. In the courtroom investigation bits, you have to listen to (well, read) witnesses’ testimonies and then cross examine them by either presenting evidence or choosing from different dialog options to reveal inconsistencies in their stories that will eventually prove the innocence of your client.

As a game, I think Phoenix Wright fails pretty miserably. There’s WAY too much mindless tapping and pixel hunting, and the single solution nature to all of the puzzles limits the fun factor pretty much. What’s even more annoying are the times when you KNOW you see an inconsistency or want to investigate a certain fact, but the game’s rigid structure prevents you from doing it until you can find the right branch on the dialog tree. Alternatively, I was occasionally baffled by stuff I personally hadn’t pieced together, but the game’s script called for Phoenix to suddenly and miraculously comprehend. On top of it all, moving between locations in the investigation phases is stupid clumsy and painfully slow. I should just be able to bring up a city map and go directly to wherever I want, but the game insisted on making me do yet more repetitive tapping and loading.

That all said, though, I have to admit that when taken more as a piece of interactive fiction, Phoenix Wright does a lot better thanks to its own weird brand of charm. It’s definitely got a strong Japanese flavor to it, what with all the overly cute characters, weird puns, and emotional slingshotting that takes place on the witness stand, but it really worked for me. It’s endearing. I just wish I could watch someone play it rather than have to play it.

Scribblenauts (Nintendo DS)

So this is a really alluring premise for a video game: solve a series of little environmental puzzles by conjuring almost any object you can think of and interacting with it in the game. That’s awesome! Who doesn’t get excited about a direct pipeline from his imagination to a video game? Here’s an example: an early level of Scribblenauts challenges you to get a cat down from the roof of a house and reunite it with its owner. Figure it out. Maybe you type in “W-I-N-G-S” or “L-A-D-D-E-R” and then give them to your in-game avatar Maxwell so that he can go up to retrieve the cat. Or you could lure the cat down with “F-I-S-H” or scare it down by plopping a “D-O-G” down next to it. Or whatever! You imagine it and Scribblenauts will let you create it and use it!

Except it doesn’t. The problem with the game is that it overreaches and the intelligence or logic or interconnections between objects isn’t deep or broad enough. There were way too many frustrating instances of stuff that makes sense to me not working. Why isn’t that “B-E-A-V-E-R” chewing through that wood? That’s what beavers do! How did that bee just sting my “B-E-E K-E-E-P-E-R” to death? She’s wearing a beekeeper suit! Why isn’t that “R-A-I-N” putting out that fire? So instead of allowing creative problem solving Scribblenauts just devolves into a never ending game of “Guess what the level designer was thinking here” which is NOT the experience I was sold on. I was sold on solving problems through zany, lateral thinking, yet I found myself simply repeating tried and true approaches like dropping toasters into shark tanks and shooting foes with guns. That got boring AND frustrating.

Perhaps the most aggravating thing about Scribblenauts, though, is the horribly conceived control scheme. You have an in-game character that you move around the environment by tapping on the screen in the direction you wish him to walk or jump. This would be an awkward alternative to the d-pad at worst, except that you ALSO tap on the screen to interact with and move the items you conjure up, which kicks it up into “critically flawed” territory. For example, say you’ve created a bridge to cross a deadly pit and you then tap the screen in an attempt to move Maxwell across it. Only oops, your errant tapping actually picked up the bridge, causing Maxwell to plummet to his unpleasant demise. Stuff like this happens ALL THE TIME, and it’s made all the more infuriating because the obvious solution seems to be to use the d-pad to control Maxwell’s movement instead of the camera.

Maybe Scribblenauts would do okay as one of those games that you occasionally pick up for a few minutes during lunch breaks or visits to waiting rooms. For this reason I would probably pick it up if they ported it to the iPhone OS with appropriate pricing. But otherwise, what a disappointment. It was such a great concept.

Thanks a lot, Microsoft

No, seriously. Thanks. When my first Xbox 360 console died on me, you were nice enough to send me a refurbished one as a replacement. Apparently that was enough though, because just 3 months or so after the warranty on THAT one ran out, it started freezing up and giving me this:

You guys are awful. But despite that, I’m STILL probably going to spend another $200 on another one of your unreliable consoles to replace this one, because I’ve got so many games, downloadable content, accessories, and other assorted junk tied up in this one. Or maybe I’ll just hawk it all and buy one of those new PS3s.


Red Faction Guerrilla

Red Faction Guerrilla (RFG) is the latest in a series of shooters involving the liberation of Mars from a bunch of jerks. This third entry into the series mixes the formula up a bit, though. The first change is that RFG is an “open world” game where you can freely run or drive around, tackling missions at your leisure and constantly checking the map to figure out where the heck you are. This works well, even if Mars is a pretty boring and sterile place relative to the venues of other open world games.

The other major change to the Red Faction formula involves what you do once you’re done running around pounding random people with sledgehammers and you decide to actually hear out one of your fellow revolutionaries and engage in some got guerrilla action. Like any good guerrilla fighter, your job here is most often to sneak/dash in and blow stuff up something important. Previous games in the series emphasized the game’s “geo mod” technology which let you use large explosive devices to slowly and pointlessly deform the game’s terrain. In RFG, on the other hand, the landscape is immutable but the buildings? Those can totally be blasted, knocked, and smashed into so many stray girders and rubble. In fact, I insist.

This is pretty much the hook that most of the game’s action is hung, and it REALLY works because reducing buildings what looks like Figure A in an IKEA assembly instruction manual is WAY more fun than you’d ever have guessed. The core mechanic also carries over to the game’s impressive online multiplayer where several modes challenge you to destroy/defend targets or just go nuts and cause more damage to ANY structure than your opponents can. All in all, the destruction mechanic is so great that it’s made me think about how much every other game sucks for not including it.

About my only substantial complaint about RFG is that I want a little more of certain things and less of others. For example, there are only a few missions related to the storyline that present you with new info, new experiences, and unique situations. These are all great missions, but there are just too few of them.

In between the good stuff the game will invite you to putz around on side missions it calls “guerrilla activities.” There are only a few different kinds of these, and once you’ve done each of them a couple of times there’s really no incentive to accept the constant invitations to do the same thing in a slightly different setting. And on top of that, some of them, like the ones where you try to blow stuff up from the turret of a moving vehicle or the ones where you have to drive a car halfway across the planet within an arbitrary time limit, are so difficult that they seem outright broken. The key to not rage quitting this game is to just avoid those missions entirely and have fun with the ones that let you blow stuff up.

Still, fantastic game and worth it alone for the smash and dash gameplay and the wonder you’ll get from the first time you detonate a half dozen remote charges and watch as your target building groans and teeters for a few seconds before finally tipping over into a cloud of twisted metal and concrete dust. It’s just great.

See the Wikipedia entry for more info and links to screenshots, etc.


So, if you were to look at the bullet points on the back of Prototype’s box, you’d see some stuff about an open world game and lots and lots of action. The thing about the latter is that it is generally so extreme that it looks down on “over the top” in just about every way. And if you’re rolling your eyes at my use of “extreme” and thinking that maybe I should have just gone ahead that tenth yard and said “eXXXtreme!!” then yeah, you’re starting to get the idea.

Indeed, the main critique I feel I can level against Prototype is that the appropriately named developer, Radical Entertainment, seems to have taken every copy of Image comic books from the 90s, wadded them up, put them in a cannon, and fired them point blank at a three-ring binder entitled “Design Document.” It’s all there –the stupidly overpowered antihero who smolders with generic rage, the gritty urban environment, the high tech shock troopers doing their best to perpetuate a government conspiracy, and black tentacle …things. The developers truly earned their “Mature” ESRB rating with this one given how the game is full of ultraviolence (63% of which is perpetuated by the morally challenged and player controlled main character) and the game’s “web of intrigue” mini cut scenes aren’t afraid to slap you upside the face with a mutilated baby or three just for the shock factor. It’s NOT subtle.

But here’s the thing. The game is FUN. Really, REALLY fun. Here’s a short list of the things you can do in this open world sandbox game:

  • Drop kick a helicopter out of the sky
  • Consume an old lady, wear her skin as a disguise, and rip through Manhatten on a granny rampage where you leap from building to building and hurl cars into terrified, fleeing mobs
  • Hijack tanks, helicopters, and APCs to hopscotch from one streak of mayhem to another
  • Leap from the Empire State Building, falling hundreds of feet into a crowd of unsuspecting pedestrians and creating a huge crater from which the dust settles half a second before it starts raining body parts
  • Sneak into a military base, rip through its terrified and panicked inhabitants like a cross between an Alien and the Tazmanian Devil from those old Loony Tunes cartoons, then sneak back out like nothing happened

I could go on, but that gives you a flavor for what I’m talking about. The action and sense of movement and raw power that you get out of Prototype are the reasons to love it, and running around doing crazy stuff doesn’t get old any time soon. There are even a series of mini games that challenge you to either race from one location to another (by, say sprinting 300 feet up a vertical skyscraper wall and then leaping three city blocks), or to cause as much death and destruction as you can with a given set of tools and constraints. This stuff is fun because the core gameplay feels so great and is so viceral.

I can forgive a trite story, an amoral lead character, and a few awful boss fights for that. See the Wikipedia entry for more information and links.

Lost Planet

Lost Planet

Here is what I would like to know: What is Japan’s problem? I mean besides the squid cookies. I’m specifically thinking here about Capcom, a Japanese video game developer who felt it necessary to screw up Lost Planet, which for me was shaping up to be a pretty good 3rd person shooter until said developer decided to throw in some goofy boss fight where you had to leap from side to side avoiding rockets and use the little Xbox 360 analog sticks to shoot at a moving target without the aid of any kind of real lock-on system. Or try to, when you’re not busy dying all the time. And that was after barely scraping by the previous battle where another boss vomited rockets at you so fast that you couldn’t get out of the stun animation. In France, they call that le stunlock bullsheet.

What makes it worse is that the parts of the game that weren’t boss fights were kind of neat. Well, once you get past the facepalm worthy characters anyway. You play some generic hero on an ice planet who falls in with some rag-tag freedom fighters trying to stick it to the big corporation that runs this ball of permafrost. These friends of yours are pretty generic too, come to think of it, including the perky female character who inexplicably shows off twelve square feet of cleavage despite the fact that it’s a hundred degrees below zero out there and everyone else wears their coats buttoned up to their eyeballs.

But anyway, the gameplay was promising, with a nice range of weapons that felt good, some neat but non-gratuitous climbing mechanics, and the option to customize giant hulking mechs with different kinds of weapons. Plus I really dug the game’s “thermal energy bank” that treated health and fuel as one big pool of energy that constantly ticked down towards zero on account of the cold and had to be replenished by rolling in the orange goo that leaks out of slain enemies or finding caches of that same goo. That added a mild but ever present sense of urgency to the game that kept the pace up.

So I liked the parts of the game that I didnt’ hate and it’s too bad that they screwed it up with the annoying boss battles. Maybe I just suck (I know you’re thinking that) but I rage quit after dying for the umpteenth time on the giant moth …thing that I was supposed to take out in my dinky little mech. Way to poke me in the eye with a stick while I was having a good time, Capcom. Enjoy your squid cookie.

Official site for screenshots, videos, and stuff.

Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a., “Fahrenheit”)

Indigo Prophecy is perhaps the worst game I’ve ever played and I hate forever everyone who suggested that I should try it.

Eager as I am to expunge abomination of a game from my mind, I’m tempted to leave my review at that. But I’ll press on. For you. Indigo Prophecy takes your basic 3D adventure game as a starting point, so you’re interacting with items/people, navigating yourself through a story, and solving puzzles while playing three different characters.

Quantum Dream actually bolted on some interesting things onto this standard template, like a gauge of your mental health that’s analogous to hit points –goof up a little in your objectives and it declines, possibly to the point where you commit suicide. But finding something your character likes can boost it. That’s kind of cool, since it adds a bit of wiggle room to a genre that traditionally has a very binary right/wrong approach to progress. I also liked the occasional switch to split screen to show you other things in the area that you need to react to, like in the first scene of the game where a cop enjoying a cup of coffee at a diner gets up to head to the restroom where you’ve apparently just killed a guy and need to scramble to hide the body.

So those are a couple of neat things. But the rest of the game? It’s awful. To start, the main characters are either bland or so cliche it makes my teeth hurt. Tyler Miles, for example, is such an embarrassing stereotype of a funky young Black mo-fo that I had to conclude that the game takes place in an alternate timeline where the 1970s actually happen a few decades into the future. I know that’s absurd BUT IT’S THE ONLY POSSIBLE EXPLANATION, PEOPLE!

But that’s typical bad adventure game writing. The first of two real critical flaws in this game is the camera. I’ve never in my life encountered video game camera behaved more like it was strapped to a hyperactive cockatoo. The main problem is that the makers are so intent on using camera angles in a cinematic way that they often make them completely aggravating for use in a video game. Specifically, the point of view would swing and fly around erratically, taking me to wide, dramatic shots or framing shots that threw me completely off my rhythm and disoriented me. CONSTANTLY. If I have to fight with your game to play it, you fail.

The biggest flaw in Indigo Prophecy that led me to set the controller down and say “Nope, that’s it, DONE.” about 25% in was the quick-time event approach to “action.” Frequently as you play through you’d be warned by flashing text to “Get ready!” because a QTE sequence was about to jump in an punch your fun in the throat. In these you’re supposed to play a lightning quick sequence of “Simon says” type repetitions where you watch a pattern of lights on the screen and try to recreate that pattern by pressing on the left and right analog control sticks. So you see flashing lights for left/left, up/right, right/right, up/left and you have to press simultaneously on the sticks so you go left/left, up/right –OH NO, YOU’RE TOO SLOW AND YOU GOT EATEN BY SOME KIND OF F’ING GIANT FLEA! Mostly because the designers decided to make the on-screen indicators semi-transparent against a busy background. Because, you know, making something critical like that harder simply to see is more fun. I guess.

And you know, I’m not even going to talk about the insipid mechanic where you have to slap the crap out of the left trigger and right trigger in succession for like 30 seconds at a time. Because if I do I’ll have to go lie down for a while.

So, bottom line, Indigo Prophecy is TERRIBLE. The developers are currently hyping their next game, Heavy Rain, and a number of game critics are already gob slobbering about how OMG TOTALLY AWESOME it looks. You people. You’re welcome to your “QTE, The Game” product. I’ll be standing over here shaking my tiny fists and getting ready to laugh the first time someone compares it –unfavorably– to Dragon’s Lair.