Assorted reviews I wrote for Zam.com

This is a post in a series of posts cataloging writing I did for the game site Zam.com, which later became ReadySet. I was the editor of Zam.com from late 2015 to early 2018. It’s shutting down today, so I wanted to preserve some of my writing from that time here on my site.

These are a group of reviews I wrote about things I either liked a lot or had really enthusiastic opinions about. I’m grouping them here because I’m not sure I should clog my website up with a lot of posts about old products that came out two years ago.

The reviews here include: The Wailing, Virginia, Imbroglio, Mu Cartographer, and Stephen’s Sausage Roll.

The Wailing review

The rural Korean village of Gokseong has a problem. People are killing one another in frenzies of homicidal glee. They’re also growing rashes and boils all over their bodies, erupting in foul-mouthed rages, running around naked at night, seeing ghosts, hiring shamans, and burning down their own houses. And snacking on bad mushrooms,maybe. Oh! And they’re hanging themselves, sometimes. Basically: shit is very bad, and nobody is quite sure what’s causing it.

The Wailing, by crime film director Hong-jin Na, is a brilliant (and occasionally brilliantly silly) melange of horror tropes that feels like someone blended every single good horror-film idea from the last 50 years in a gigantic blender. The result is a hard lump of refined horror that makes only a medium amount of sense.

But somehow, miraculously, The Wailing nevertheless manages to remain deeply and intensely rewarding on a moment-to-moment basis, even though the overall story — deliberately — is never entirely coherent. I saw it in a theater, but I wish I’d seen it at home, with friends and a bowl of popcorn and the windows screwed down tight so we could all scream “what the everloving fuck?” every five seconds, because that’s what this movie deserves. It’s an absolute rollercoaster of disjointed genres and tones, and I loved almost every moment of it.

The film stars Do Won Kwak as Jong-goo, an overweight, less-than-intelligent low-ranking policeman who lives in the countryside village of Gokseong with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his beloved daughter Hyo-jin. For the first hour, The Wailing is a horror-adjacent darkly comedic mystery. What made a local build a giant nest in his house, collect mushrooms, and then brutally murder a local ginseng farmer and his wife? Why is this murderer covered in boils? Does all the mushroom shit in his blood have anything to do with it? Or — as locals whisper — was he led to do this by a middle-aged Japanese man, a new arrival in town whom many claim a) strips naked to eat rotten deer carcasses in the woods and b) is actually a ghost?

Jong-goo’s investigations of the first couple murders in town are deeply, deeply, comedic, to the point where I started to wonder if I’d got my information wrong and this film was actually a parody-horror film. Jong-goo and his colleagues are profoundly inept, and their investigations are a series of slapstick setpieces. I spent this whole first hour desperately trying to identify the horror subgenre this film was trying to be. A zombie movie? A ghost story? A psychedelic drug fad gone wrong? There are moments in the beginning of the film where it genuinely seems as if there will be a scientific explanation for everything happening in Gokseong.

But the film goes steady with none of these explanations. By the time Jong-goo’s family is touched by the rage-rash plague, the tone of the film has changed. Director Na starts out playing improbable lightning-strike injuries for laughs but ends the film with bloodsplattered homes and genuinely-scary, even quite literally subterranean journeys into the hearts of various darknesses.

First, we leave comedy-land for criminal thriller territory. Then the film turns into a Korean version of The Exorcist, then immediately veers hard back into comedy for an action scene where a lynch mob tries to hunt down the Japanese visitor, then dives into a pit of drama and genuine horror which only gets more and more intense — and more and more about religion — the longer the film goes on.

It is absolutely impossible to predict the direction of the plot at any point during the story, and so long as you are willing to accept each scene for whatever-the-fuck it is, it’s an amazing ride. The Japanese man is, perhaps, the best representative of the film’s completely bizarre approach to the many horror tropes and religious traditions from which it draws. He is portrayed variously as a ghost, a satanist, a demon-hunter, an eeeeevil foreigner, and a misunderstood mortal; my personal opinion about which he’d turn out to really be changed about every ten minutes for over an hour straight.

The most tremendous scene in the story is a traditional exorcism which is, probably, the loudest and most terrifying religious ceremony I have ever seen in any movie. Although it is much more naturalistic than its cinema inspiration, I found it much scarier than The Exorcist simply because I had no idea what was going on. I am sure that my overall understanding of the film was hindered by my inability to parse any references to traditional Korean spirituality, but even an uninformed viewer can feel the confusion and terror the exorcism scene inspires in the participants. It is so long and loud that by the end of it, no one — in the audience or in the film — is quite sure whether it could possibly be helping Jong-goo and his family.

The film is definitely about something: it’s about exactly the experience I had in the theater. Both the audience and the characters are totally unable to identify why the bad things are happening, and everyone’s dashing around wildly in search of explanations and solutions. A host of different authorities offer guidance and advice, and Jong-goo and his fellow townsfolk spend time courting a shaman, a priest, traditional medicine, and modern hospitals.

This is a film about what happens when authorities collapse and sense flies out the window on batty wings. As it draws to its conclusion, various characters each desperately try to solve the problem by following the instructions of their own beliefs. By the final few scenes there are so many different valid interpretations flying around that we completely understand Jong-goo’s helpless confusion.

For a movie about so many classic horror tropes, it’s unsurprising that the main character would do a lot of outrageously incompetent shit, and Jong-goo is obviously written as an overt bumbler and coward in order to excuse a lot of the bad choices he must make to keep the plot rolling along. There is no reason for him to disassemble an evil shrine with a pickaxe while multiple religious authorities watch, but he does; there is no reason why he should allow a curse-possessed murderer to keep living at home, but he does. He antagonizes a guard-dog twice and is surprised when it slips its leash both times.

His fellow policemen are all exactly as incompetent — and so are all the municipal authorities in town. (A scene where firemen and police respond to a home arson is completely slapstick.) But the how-could-he-be-so-foolish plot holes in The Wailing are of only minor concern when everything else is such a ridiculously and deliberately amped-up fairground-ride of horror absurdity.

Worse, however, is the fact that the film never really treats its characters’ xenophobia and racism critically. Koreans have had (and continue to have) pretty good reasons to be angry with the Japanese government, which refused for decades to officially apologize for systematic sexual slavery and other war crimes committed during WW2.

At times, however, The Wailing seems to be saying that it’s really extremely reasonablefor Jong-goo and other cops to be hostile and violent toward the lone Japanese dude living in town. I was expecting a “gee, wow, this is bad, actually,” scene that never came, and although I know I don’t completely understand the cultural context for this part of the movie, it still left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Regardless, The Wailing is such an accomplished crosshatched over-the-top frenzied mix of comedy, horror, thriller, and mystery that when I walked out of the theater I could only make claw-hands at the moon and demand to myself: what the hell did I just see? That’s the point, though, as far as I can tell — this is exactly what Na wanted me to feel. Whatever he was trying to do, he absolutely did it.

Virginia review

When you load up Virginia, the first thing you notice might be that the main menu is letterboxed, like a wide-format film. The second thing you might notice is that instead of “start game,” the game asks you to “begin feature”– as in, feature film. Before you start playing, you will sit through a long series of opening credits nearly identical to those you may have seen in a lot of movies. You may notice, in those credits the name of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. It is a famous orchestra which often records the scores for films. Then you might notice that the game itself is still letterboxed.

At this point, you should begin putting clues one and two and three up through six or ten together and realize that you are about to play a videogame of a film. I mean– a videogame that has pillaged the shit out of filmmaking. Er,  bear with me: a videogame that is exploring the vast and (remarkably!!) still fresh zone between whatever feels like a videogame to us, and whatever feels like a movie. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to pin a solid genre definition on Virginia, I’d call it an experimental first-person narrative game which is designed to look and feel like a movie.

In Variable State’s Virginia, you play Anne Tarver, a newly-graduated FBI agent just starting her career. Anne has been assigned to accompany another FBI agent, Maria Halperin, to investigate the case of a missing teen in a town called Kingdom, Virginia. Anne is not just there to solve the case, though– she has been asked to accompany Maria as part of an internal-affairs case. Over the course of the story, you grow to discover that something possibly supernatural is afoot– but you also discover a series of decidedly un-supernatural mysteries, shames, and cruelties.

Virginia borrows liberally from both Twin Peaks and The X Files. Its main musical theme is nearly a copy of some music which appears in Twin Peaks, and certain story elements– characters, plots, even a disorganized, basement-level office filled with filing cabinets and projectors– seem heavily inspired by The X Files. It strikes a mood halfway between Twin Peaks’ spookiness and The X Files’ often-hallucinatory weirdness. It includes a bizarre drug trip. It includes situations which seem to ignore cause and effect. It includes extended scenes which I am not sure “actually happened” to the characters “in real life.” It leaps around wildly in time and space.

IT CONTAINS ABSOLUTELY NO DIALOGUE.

And that, really, is the thing that makes Virginia special. It’s not just a videogame designed to look and feel like a movie: it’s a videogame that looks and feels like a silent film. The entire story is conveyed through a series of mime-like character interactions that you either witness or participate in– a woman slapping a man, a teen hurling a precious item over a fence, a fateful handshake, repeated over and over again. The low-poly characters in this story have absolutely top-notch expressive animation. The entire story relies on the skill of the animators to convey plot without words. They succeed. It’s amazing.

But it’s not all just mimery– Virginia uses other silent techniques as well. Characters’ struggles, backstories, motivations, and desires are usually represented with prop objects they will carry, dream about, recieve, or hide. You’re given a FBI dossier early in the story which comes to represent your relationship with your partner. Your partner, on the other hand, carries and worries about a necklace which comes to represent her mysterious past. When the plot becomes too confusing to illustrate entirely with mimed vignettes or symbolic objects, someone will usually hand you a TOP SECRET FBI dossier and give you a couple seconds to scan the written contents for context.

When it’s not using mimes, special objects, or text-filled dossiers to tell its story, Virginiarelies on its editing– as in, film editing. It moves with hard, fast cuts between images and locations, exactly like the game which very obviously inspired this technique (and which Virginia’s creators thank in the credits): Thirty Flights of Loving, a vignette narrative game released in 2012 by Blendo Games.

Like Thirty Flights, Virginia transports you rapidly from place to place and relies on you to look at where you are, look at the people and things around you, and draw a conclusion about what has happened to you since the last scene occurred. At one point in the middle of Virginia, you pop from a photography darkroom directly into a police station, leaping from the discovery of a clue directly to the investigation’s result, skipping the arrest and interrogation entirely. At another point, a series of cuts from scene to scene in a small-town bar require you to imagine how two characters reconciled their differences and became friends. Virginia trusts its players to assemble the story themselves out of the provided parts. It feels good to be trusted like this by a videogame– I rarely experience that, to be honest!

It’s particularly amusing to feel so trusted and respected by a game which is basically trying as hard as it can to feel exactly like a movie. A lot of people complain about “games which are like movies” because they feel that those games do not trust their agency enough. Even now, you may be sitting here thinking to yourself, “Gee, I don’t want to play a videogame which is like a movie! That’s bad, right?”

Over the last decade, I’ve heard a lot of people accuse a lot of videogames of being too much like movies. The assumption these people usually make is that a videogame should not be like a movie– that movies and videogames each have little to nothing to offer one another, and that videogames must diverge from films as fast and energetically as possible in order to find their way as a medium.

This is, in my opinion, extremely silly! There is no reason why games shouldn’t pillage anything they want from filmmaking, and there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t try to create hybrid experiences. We’d be silly to limit people’s creativity by holding them to any prescriptive idea of what games can or should be. Players who complain that an experience is too much like a movie are, I think, really complaining about something else– a lack of satisfying agency, a feeling of powerlessness, or an overscripted awkwardness that draws glaring and negative attention to the ways in which games aren’t actually movies.

Virginia, on the other hand, is largely without that kind of awkwardness. It’s clear very early on exactly how scripted the game is. There is little conflict between its expressive scenes and its players’ agency because player agency is limited to discovering and triggering expressive scenes. You will not be collecting clues or solving challenges or earning rewards: your reward will be the satisfaction and fascination you experience every time you trigger a new, mysterious moment.

This works because Virginia lays out its ground rules almost immediately, and sticks to them with serious dedication. The game’s first scene walks you step-by-step through the process of applying lipstick in order to teach you how its interactive hotspots work– and, I think, to get you accustomed to the idea that you do not have the freedom to start and stop this process or walk around or do whatever you like in the middle of it. When the game wants you to apply lipstick, you’ll apply lipstick, goddamn it. In Virginia, you are often free to explore environments for as long as you want, but the hotspot is king, and in order to eventually progress through the story, you must click on all your prompted hotspots in order as they appear. Often, your ability to walk, sit, or stand is quite limited. Your role here is to perform and witness a series of intriguing vignettes which make you feel like a character in a story. That’s it.

And it’s great. Genuinely, I loved this. I am a sucker for Twin Peaks and The X Files, but I think I would have enjoyed this odd story and its strictly-limited interactive rules even if I had never seen either of those shows. Virginia is often mindbogglingly beautiful. Its lighting and color work are incredible– nighttime gas-stations, dawn-lit meadows, and sunsets over rolling, forested hills are all absolutely perfect. Its characters’ cartoonish yet subtle facial animations communicate layers of feeling and help to define complicated, suspicion-riddled relationships. Its interior scenes in particular are full of fascinating little low-poly details. Your hands– the part of yourself you see the most– are incredibly eloquent, showing your character’s horror, excitement, and shame in a way that doesn’t feel even the least bit awkward or stilted.

And, about these characters: Virginia stars two black female FBI agents, and gives them distinct, strongly-opposed personalities without even having them speak on-screen.When it comes to creating characters who look and feel unique, Virginia is putting a lotof other games to shame, mainstream and indie alike. It’s extremely refreshing! Over the last few years, television has started to discover, I think, that audiences want new kinds of stories about different kinds of people. We want to be surprised and intrigued by characters whose life-stories and personalities we can no longer predict. I think Virginiashows us a way that videogames can follow the same path.

If you are the kind of person who likes stories to end with cold, hard, answers to specific, strongly-stated mysteries, I’m gonna warn you: Virginia is not interested in giving you these things. You are going to get– uh– a bird. A bison. Some out-of-body experiences. Some time travel? A half-answer flickering by at the corner of your eye in the last minute of the game, easy to miss if you look the wrong way. Many characters’ stories are only half-told. They enrich the world, but add more questions than answers. If you like the kind of answer-phobic attitude characterized Twin Peaks and The X Files, you’ll probably love the way the story is handled in Virginia. If you didn’t, you won’t. If the idea of a narrative game which looks like a movie and feels like a movie and is only as long as the average movie repels you, you’ll also probably be disappointed.

But if those things repel you, you are missing the hell out! Virginia is definitely a must-play for any fans of first-person narrative in videogames. I wouldn’t be surprised to see echoes of its scenes and its interactive techniques appear in other videogames over the next few years. It takes a lot of risks, and all of them absolutely pay off. It’s a masterclass in videogame narrative design. It feels fresh and weird and it respects your time and your smarts and it’s beautiful as all get out.

And it’s chock full of references to my two favorite 90s TV shows, so, yeah. There you go.

Imbroglio review

“Imbroglio” is a fantastic word. It’s legitimately fun to pronounce– “im-BROL-yo,” from the italian for “to confuse”– and it means, basically, “a terribly confusing embarrassing disaster situation.” If you fell asleep on a train and woke up in a strange town without your phone or wallet, that would be an imbroglio. If you lost your date at a halloween masquerade because everyone was wearing the exact same Rick Sanchez costume, that would be an imbroglio. If you were driving a hearse and it went over a speed bump and the coffin shot out the back of the hearse and the dead guy shot out of the coffin and caused a car crash that went on for several blocks, that would be an imbroglio, and also a scene in a slapstick dark-comedy indie film. Imbroglios are bad to be in, but often fun to watch. The Coen Brothers are pretty damn good at imbroglios.

Michael Brough’s latest game is called Imbroglio. It’s a fast-paced micro-roguelike with deck-building elements and a spooky labyrinth theme, and it definitely wants you to feel as if you are trapped in an imbroglio while playing it. The trick to Brough’s Imbroglio, however, is that you, the player, control the terms of the embarrassing disaster, setting yourself up for success or failure. It’s a game about taming chaos, or creating controlled chaos– or, perhaps, creating the kind of uncontrolled chaos you think you can (somehow) live in.

Here’s how it works. The player chooses a hero– there are eight, each with different abilities– and creates a “board” of sixteen cards which represent the grid of the play area. During the game, whatever card the hero is standing on represents the weapon they will use to attack. The player must anticipate enemy movement and position themselves so that when they attack, they’ll be standing on the tool which is most useful for dealing with the current enemy. Between enemies, players snatch up score gems which shift the labyrinth, giving the four-by-four grid a new set of dividing-walls, separating the cards on the board in new ways, and forcing the player to deal with whatever problems that might create.

The board is what makes this game so different from other small roguelikes I’ve played recently, like Hoplite (another fantastic phone roguelike, by the way). The board is, basically, the whole game: you react to situations tactically, but you create the terms of the encounter with your board design. You must create a board which synergizes with your hero’s abilities, and you must learn to play the boards you create, too: you can’t just hop around the map and attack at random with whatever you’re standing on. The monsters all have two different health bars of different lengths, and you should always attack a monster with a weapon that targets its shortest health-bar. Some weapons are ranged. Other weapons refill or drain your two health-bars. Some inflict status effects. And on top of this, weapons level up the more times you kill with them. So you’ve got to deliberately stand on specific weapons and kill with them a whole bunch of times if you want to unlock some of their higher-order abilities.

I’ve given you this mechanics information-dump because Imbroglio’s brilliance is its mechanical depth. It is a tightly-woven web of systems and currencies and strategy and tactics that rewards both experimentation– new boards, new heroes– and practice. I have played as Masina Rebel Queen for several hours, and I’ve gotten steadily better and better at her, making only slight changes to my board over time as I learn more about how to best use her unique skill. But I’ve taken more liberties with Susannah Holy Templar, a hero who is only allowed to use weapons which target a monster’s red health-bar. Her best boards all involve different combinations of high-damage red weapons, so she can deal with monsters that soak up more red damage. Her default board also comes with a lot of ranged weapons, for shooting those red-resistant monsters from afar. I’ve moved a lot of those ranged weapons around the board, but I’ve also experimented with boards that use close-range red weapons which have better damage scaling. When I play those boards, I have to work hard to level the fast-scaling weapons up so that they’ll be more useful to me. Each hero comes with different challenges, and there are zillions of different board designs you could make to deal with those problems, and zillions of different tactics you could use to play those boards in the best way. Right now, to me, the possibilities do seem rather endless.

You may be familiar with Brough’s other work– 868-HACK, his lo-fi, hacker-themed roguelike, was a 2014 IGF finalist for excellence in design. (Imbroglio was a 2016 honorable-mention for the same award.) 868-HACK took place entirely in a six-by-six grid and featured a ‘streak scoring’ mechanic, where players would get more points for completing the full game many times in a row without dying. Imbroglio is much smaller and tighter: it’s got that four-by-four grid, has no streak scoring mechanic, and focuses more on the desperate race to higher and higher scores within a single play session. This is, I declare, good: the problems you are trying to solve in Imbroglio are more specific, more tightly-contained, and less random than the ones you are trying to solve in 868-HACK, but just as complex– perhaps even more so. And that’s how I like it.

If you like experimenting and practicing to solve specific, tightly-contained strategic and tactical problems, Imbroglio will quite possibly be exactly your jam. It’s up there with 868-HACK and Hoplite, my other two previous favorite iOS roguelikes. I see it having a very, very long life on my phone.

I’ve been checking the leaderboards all day, because I am currently thirteenth-best in the world (last night: seventh best) at Masina Rebel Queen, and if anyone else passes me, I am going to lose my shit.When I get home tonight, I’m sitting myself down and trying to score over one hundred points with Masina. I know what my weaknesses are with her, I know I’ve got to get better at them, and I have a few thoughts about how I’m going to do it. It’s that strategic, board-building layer that makes this kind of thinking and planning possible, and that layer that will give the game a very, very long life life its players, I think. At any rate, it’s got its hooks in me already.

Verdict: YES

Imbroglio is currently available on iOS.

Mu Cartographer review impressions

I first heard of Mu Cartographer during the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC this March. The EGW is a (relatively) long-running GDC event designed to highlight truly weird game design — bizarre and strange and never-before-seen kind of stuff.

Real risk-taking! Bleeding-edge innovation! Sometimes, the stuff you see at the panel is so vast or odd or art-installation-esque you could never fit it in a house. Sometimes, it’s weird stuff that eventually gets released and played widely enough that you might now recognize it — games like Mushroom 11 or Starseed Pilgrim or Spaceteam, which all appeared at the 2013 EGW.

Is the stuff at this event always that purely weird? No, not always — particularly recently, it’s started to seem like there’s less and less truly “experimental” stuff on stage. Mu Cartographer by Titouan Millet, however, definitely lived up to my (arbitrary, probably) standards for “real experimental gameplay,” so I’ve been keeping it at the back of my mind for a while now.

Mu Cartographer pitches itself as a game about learning to use a kind of mysterious control panel to go on a treasure hunt. You’re given a screen cluttered with draggable interface elements — spare clusters of shapes and lines and wiggles and dots. The center of the screen is dominated by a circular slice of 3D topography that changes shape, color, and position based on the adjustments you make in the interface. The topography represents, it seems, a strange, profoundly un-earthlike world. It’s not always quite clear whether your machinery physically changes the world outside, or whether it merely alters your perspective of this world so dramatically that it looks like your interface is changing the world outside.

The most important interface element is a text browser that allows you to move between three libraries of extremely short, evocative text snippets written by the story’s three central characters. They write and behave like classic, khaki-and-pith-helmet-wearing British wilderness explorers, so that’s what I’ve assumed they are; the story is so carefully pared-down to their single-sentence diary entries, however, that we never quite get any of the context necessary to be sure about this.

Most of their writing is focused on this weird, alien dimension they’re trapped in — they express tweet-length bursts of excitement, awe, and horror. Selecting a text snippet in the browser makes the interfaces change; they’ll start to give you hints and clues about where to go and what to do to find the next chunk of the story. The rest is up to you.

Mu Cartographer, at first, is frustrating. There is no tutorial, and at no point does the game ever tell you in English what you’re looking for — or when, while exploring a branch of interface setting combinations, you’ve found everything there is to find.

Playing the game made me think quite a bit about the unwritten design language that underpins a lot of software interfaces in our world. We’re familiar with the power sign, with save icons, and even now with the “hamburger menu” icon frequently found in phone app interfaces. We are familiar with certain ways of depicting a scroll bar. We know that red and X shapes mean stop and close; green buttons frequently tell us we’re confirming something, or telling something to start. The interface in Mu Cartographerdoesn’t use any of these! It has its own language, and you’ll have to learn it.

You’ll also have to do a lot of experimenting yourself. The various interface elements sometimes affect one another in non-obvious ways, so you’ll have to stay sharp and pay attention to small changes. You might also get stuck. I’ve come across at least three different moments when I came up hard against some totally inscrutable problem that kept me stumped and stuck for a while and required a leap of imagination to break past. This is the core goal of the game, really: for the player to have an “eureka” moment or two. There are not a lot of clues; you just gotta make the leap yourself.

I genuinely liked this experience. I also liked the story told in the text snippets; it’s very simple, but quite atmospheric. The story and the music and the cosmic humming and the topographical weirdness in the center of the screen create an environment with a really solid mood of trans-dimensional sci-fi mystery and epiphany. Which is astonishing, really, because there’s not a lot in this game — just a small number of obscure but simple systems, a library of tiny texts, and few suggestive sounds. Titouan Millet has created a very expressive game out of what sometimes feels like almost nothing. It’s genuinely brilliant.

I was occasionally frustrated by moments of difficulty that seemed accidental, or somehow not part of the designed challenge: for example, there’s at least one map setting that makes certain hidden objects the same color as the background they’re set against. Largely, though, Mu Cartographer is a carefully-built little game; I don’t have a lot of examples like these.

If you are looking for something low-key and genuinely experimental — Millet calls this game an “experimental treasure hunt” — Mu Cartographer is probably your jam. “Cosmic mystery” is a mood that a lot of games have been aiming to capture recently, No Man’s Sky chief among them, and it’s very, very cool to see such a small, spare game capture that feeling so well.

Stephen’s Sausage Roll review

Stephen Lavelle, or increpare, is one of my favorite solo game designers. He’s also one of the most prolific I know of: his website currently hosts 245 different projects, both bigger games and tiny, laser-focused conceptual projects. I sort of “grew up” in games by playing his stuff– when I first started paying attention to independent games, I played his projects religiously. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years. He’s got a finely-honed artistic voice and has proven his design mettle literally hundreds of times over. He’s a designer worth respecting.

Now, though, I think I’m ready to curse his name and hold a deadly grudge against him forever. I mean, yes, I think his latest game, Stephen’s Sausage Roll, is great. It’s really really really good, okay? But BY GOD, I’VE BEEN LIVING IN SAUSAGE HELL FOR TWO WEEKS. DELIVER ME, O LORD.

Let’s cover the bare basics: Stephen’s Sausage Roll is an elegantly simple sokoban-style puzzle game about cooking gigantic sausages on a series of twisted islands. The islands are covered in fiery grill spaces. You are a tiny baby-esque low-poly individual who holds a gigantic sausage-spearing implement out in front at all times. Hitting a sausage on the side with your spear causes it to roll; hitting a sausage on its end causes it to slide. Each sausage is two grid spaces long and has upper and lower sides which must each be roasted individually. No sausage “quadrant” can touch a grill tile for two moves; to be roasted perfectly, each part of the sausage can roll over a grill only once.

The rules that govern player movement and sausage movement interact in ways you might not expect. What happens when you press sausages against immovable objects? What happens when the environment gains verticality, and sausages stack on top of one another? What happens when you try to walk on top of a sausage?The game is divided into islands which explore these rule complications one by one. It’s an extremely smart game. It explores the furthest implications of its rules in complete and overwhelming detail.

And it’s the hardest puzzle game I’ve played in my life. I’m not exaggerating. The game is so hard that in two weeks of daily play, for around an hour a day on average, I was unable to finish it. Which is a big deal for me, because I have a track record of being pretty good at grid-based, sokoban-influenced puzzle games like increpare’s previous commercial game, English Country Tune, and the chemistry-themed Sokobond. But in Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Lavelle has created the sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle game to absolutely obliterate all other sokoban-influenced grid-based puzzle games. It took me a whole week to beat the first island. I panicked, I’ll admit. I was already trying to figure out what I would say in this review if I were too bad to beat even the first island.

I’m on island 3 right now. This is not the final island.

Like increpare’s English Country TuneStephen’s Sausage Roll is not afraid to occasionally bottleneck player progression. The Witness worked hard to completely remove puzzle bottlenecking– on the overworld, at least, there was always something else the player could do if they were stuck on a particular puzzle. But Stephen’s Sausage Roll forces you to fully complete one island before unlocking another, which means that you may frequently find yourself face-to-face with a final few puzzles that you absolutely cannot figure out how to complete.

To proceed, you must improve. You must go into battle against the final sausages. These islands are named– so the game tells us– The Isles of Wisdom. Get Wise, fool. Look: I love me a ruthless puzzle game. I loved Sokobond, but I still have a half-handful of puzzles in that one that I haven’t finished. I absolutely refuse to look up puzzle solutions in games like these– that would ruin the point. In puzzle games like these– where there’s no secret content to unlock, no story, nothing but the puzzles– the only reward you get is your Getting Wise.

Looking up a solution would wreck the whole point. I respect that. The sense of accomplishment I get from finally figuring out a tough puzzle is the same joy I get from wrecking a hard Dark Souls boss and the same satisfaction I get from completing difficult tasks at work a day before they’re due. I genuinely enjoy the feeling that I get when I overcome hard, unpleasant assignments. I enjoy it more than I enjoy chilling out and relaxing. Why? I don’t know. Hire me a shrink. It’s just the way I am. And I think it’s the way you’ll have to be, too, if you want to enjoy Stephen’s Sausage Roll.

So yes, that’s the major bar to enjoyment, but I have to mention that there are other things to appreciate about Stephen’s Sausage Roll beyond its mere intricate rolling of sausages. Like many of increpare’s other games, SSR has an understated, elegantly rough-around-the-edges art style. It’s got big, awkward sausages, weird fonts with sloppy outlines, and that awful little nugget-shaped protagonist with those cartoony slap-slap-slap little feet.

But it’s very deliberately odd, and the low-poly, disorganized environments, with their cyclical sunrises and sunsets, are actually a pretty peaceful place to have your butt kicked by puzzles. Shuffling through a patch of flowers with a raw, blotchy sausage speared on your nose, kicking up petals as you go, is kind of wonderful. The music is meandering and odd, but it feels very careful, very appropriate.

Just like its puzzle content, the game’s art and music feel very deliberately designed. Lavelle knows exactly what he’s trying to make. Once you get up to your neck in sausage-world, it feels good. I spent most of this game with a giant sturgeon-frown of self-contempt on my face, but I kept breaking into smiles. When I figured out how to get from island one to island two, I grinned so hard that my eyes stung.

I may have spent two weeks stretched out on the sizzling grills of sausage hell, but sausage hell is, basically, a nice place to be.

Verdict: Yes

Laura’s fanfiction library DO NOT POST VERY SERIOUS!!

This is a post in a series of posts cataloging writing I did for the games website Zam.com, which later became Readyset. I edited Zam.com from late 2015 to early 2018. This post was our 2016 April Fool’s post.

This post is very stupid and I’m only saving it because it is one of the few times at Zam that I was able to write something stupid and publish it and get away with it, and reading it connects me to who I was back then in a powerful way, I guess.

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#1 YARNY’S INFERNO

“Oh drat,” Yarny said, suddenly dead. “I’m dead!”

The cool thing about dying when you are a tiny yarn creature is that you suddenly gain the power of speech. “I’ve never been able to speak before, but now I’m able to speak about anything I wish. How convenient for narrating my adventures in the land of the dead,” Yarny said, as his soul tumbled through space and time. He looked real funny and cute as he tumbled, and his little yarn streamers trailed out behind his comically-flailing limbs. Poor Yarny!

Yarny landed on a cloud up in heaven, face-to-face with Saint Peter. Saint Peter blinked and squinted. “Who’s this?” he asked, in a booming, gigantic voice. “What are you?”

“I’m Yarny,” Yarny said. “I’m small, but I’m full of heart. I died on a quest to brighten people’s lives and help them overcome grief. I’m–”

“You look like a little devil,” Saint Peter said.

“What?”

“You got them little horns on either side of your head, and you’re red, and you’re definitely some kind of, like, voodoo doll, or something,” Saint Peter said. “Some occult shit? Normally all we get up here is humans and dogs, and you’re not either of those.”

“I’m a little toy on a quest to restore hope and wellbeing to people suffering from–”

“You got them little horns,” Saint Peter said. “I’m calling ‘devil.’”

Saint Peter lifted his golden horn to his lips, and instead of tooting the horn toot that opens the gates of heaven, he tooted the bad toot, the hell toot, and sent Yarny down to hell.

The unfortunate thing about being a little man made of yarn is that you burn, very easily. The first thing Yarny did when he arrived in hell was burn in hell. It was very uncomfortable!

“Ouch! Ouch,” Yarny cried, and he

#2 MARCUS’S ADVENTURE IN THE CLONE LABS

Marcus Fenix woke up out of deep deep mega sleep and found himself lying on a table in a mysterious laboratory room. He was very tired and his ribs hurt. “Ow,” he said. “It feels as if one of my ribs was removed!”

“It was,” said a mysterious but very familiar voice. Marcus looked over– and he saw that there was a table on the other side of the room, with a clone of him on it! A second Fenix!

“Ahhhhh,” screamed Marcus.

“I am your clone twin,” said Fenix Two. “I was cloned from your rib. Now we are clone brothers. The mysterious forces that did this to us have locked us here in this room. That is the situation that we are now in.”

“Ahhhhhhhhhh,” screamed Marcus. “I’m very frightened!”

“As you know, we now have three options. The first is that we can be enemies forever and fight each other to maintain our power as the sole Fenix.”

Marcus One tried jumped off the laboratory table and roadie-ran to the door, to avoid any potential gunfire. The door was locked, though. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” he screamed.

Fenix Two was not bothered by this reaction, because he was a clone, and clones all understand their original clone-brothers perfectly. “The second choice we have is to team up and be friends and allies,” he continued. “We would join up as a team and help each other. We would become a kind of Fenix Force. Are you the kind of person who would team up and become a Fenix Force with me?”

Marcus One tried to headbutt the door open. His big strong-man meaty head and neck made a big dent, but he did not succeed.

“This is the big question,” Fenix Two said. “Are we, Marcus Fenix, the kind of person who would team up with our clone, or fight our clone? It is the most essential human question. It is the big unknown that every person must ask themselves.”

Marcus One stopped in his tracks. “Wait,” he said. “I thought you said there were three options.”

“Well, yes,” Fenix Two said. “But the third option is only for fanfiction, and not for real life, like the situation we are in right now.”

“What’s that, then?”

“It is the option where we make out and kiss each other very much,” Fenix Two said.

And then Marcus One chose

#3 DOGMEAT TO THE RESCUE

Dogmeat was kicking back and relaxing, drinking cool margs with his loser human pals at the awesome wasteland drinks bar, when an innocent wasteland civilian ran up all a-tremble.

“Dogmeat!” He shouted. “Super cool wasteland adventure protagonist dog! We need your help!”

Dogmeat set down his marg and took a puff on his cigar. “Yes, it is me, Dogmeat, hero of the Capitol and also Commonwealth wastelands, and very cool guy,” he said, adjusting his shades. “Tell me. What is the trouble?”

“Super Mutants have kidnapped everyone in my town! They’re eating them and treating them bad,” the human cried. “I am very weak and have no guns, so I cannot rescue them!”

Dogmeat sighed and hefted his eight-foot-long nuclear minigun with spikes on it. “Looks like I gotta come to the rescue,” he said. “A-gain! Come on, groupies, let’s walk.”

“Right away, sir,” said all the humans, whom Dogmeat could not tell apart because of how boring they were.

Dogmeat and his human friends ran from the settlement place where the margs and cigars were to the bad brown wasteland wrecked place where all the super mutants and nukes were. Dogmeat squashed his Che Guevara cool guy hat low over his eyes and squinted into the encampment.

“Looks like typical Super Mutant shit,” he said. “You there, Human One. Pass me the business.”

Human One handed Dogmeat the gigantic nuke launcher Big Boy gun with a nuke in it, and also an ICBM, and also some anvils (in it. The anvils and the ICBM were in the gun beside the nuke). Dogmeat aimed it at the encampment and blew the encampment up. The blast was so big and bright that all the humans got sunburns.

“That should do it,” Dogmeat said. But down in the encampment the King Super Mutant who was resistant to nukes stood up and shouted “DOGMEAT! COME BACK! WE GOTTA GO ONE ON ONE MANO A MANO!!”

Dogmeat heard this shout and stopped in his tracks.

“Human Two,” he said. “Hand me the business.

Human Two handed Dogmeat a gigantic sword made out of motorcycles and

The Top 10 Saddest Statues in The Witness

This is a post in a collection of posts calaloging writing I did for the games site Zam.com, which later became ReadySet. I edited Zam.com from late 2015 to early 2018. ReadySet is shutting down today and I am republishing some of my writing to preserve it.

I wrote this in February 2016. It was eventually accompanied by a very funny video produced by Danielle Riendeau.

I have now finished The Witness, which means that I am very cool and also smart. Unfortunately, The Witness takes place on an island filled with people who are not cool at all: the statue people.

For the world’s most extremely, very Buddhist videogame, there sure is a lot of anguish in The Witness. There are like 50 statue people on the island and I’d say that maybe half of them are definitely in the ‘tearing clothes and gnashing teeth’ category of sadness. So I’ve collected the best ones here — these are the saddest statue people in The Witness, arranged in increasing order of sadness.

1)TRASH BAG LADYwitness 1

This lady has to carry around trash bags! Forever! She looks a little annoyed by this!

2) DEFEATED SWORD LADY

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This pair of statues in the Keep area of the island are experiencing a moment of grim irony. The standing lady is dressed like a fencer, but her defeated enemy is not! It doesn’t seem like the lady on the ground expected her opponent to have a Real Life Medieval Sword.

The lady on the ground is simultaneously worried and trying to keep her cool. She wants to talk it out. Unfortunately, she won’t be able to, because everyone involved in this little tableau is now a rock.

3) HAMMER MAN

The man on top of the mountain with the hammer isn’t so much sad as angry, but I bet if we sat him down with a cup of hot chocolate and told him everything was all right, he would spill his soul to us and let us know exactly why he’s trying to destroy this monument with a gigantic sledgehammer.

It’s probably because he feels inadequate. The monument he’s destroying probably represents Science or Faith or some shit. Hammer Man is probably living out some deep anguish he has re: this stuff, and it’s probably linked to his fears about being taken seriously as a man of muscle.

It’s okay, Hammer Man. Everything will be all right. Your muscles are pretty big, and you’re doing fine.

4) CLIFF JUMPING MAN AND YELLING LADY

This pair of sad people can also be found on the mountaintop. There’s a yelling lady, and she’s yelling at a fearful dude who’s about to walk backwards off the edge of a cliff. The fearful man looks an awful lot like Ted Cruz. Very fraught!

There’s probably something deeper going on here, though…

…he’s holding a book! Given the rest of the shit in this game, it’s highly likely that the book represents his Bad Qualities, or his False Beliefs, or his Many Burdens which he should be surrendering so he can be peaceful instead. The yelling lady is probably all like, “SURRENDER YOUR MANY BURDENS!!” and he’s probably like “NO, I NEED THESE IN MY LIFE TO DISTRACT ME FROM THE GREAT TURMOIL IN MY TROUBLED SOUL!!!” And he won’t take her hand! What a fool!

Anyway, they’re pretty anguished!

5) THE TORTURED SOFTWARE ENGINEERS

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These two statues are both sitting around with a chisel at one hand and a laptop at the other. They are artists! They use code! They Create! They chisel rock! They are rocks!!Perhaps they have created themselves! Or perhaps they have created this whole mountain-top monument– this whole world!! What sacrifice! What sadness!

This man and this lady are probably trying to remake themselves or their world through The Power Of Code, or Science, and they are sad because they are visionaries. Probably if all of us liked Science more, or were smarter, or had better attitudes about Art, these poor saints would not have to chisel themselves to death on this mountaintop.

6) GRAIL REACHING MAN

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Okay, now we’re getting into the good shit: all those statues which are reaching plaintively towards the sky. There’s a lot of them!

Perhaps the most plaintive one is Grail Reaching Man, who is kneeling miserably in the ruins of a museum because the one thing he wants– the grail– is just out of his reach. But wait… WAIT…

witness 8.jpg

…HOLY SHIT!! If you look at his shadow, you can see that HE ALREADY HAVETH WHAT HE DESIRES! Another moment of crushing irony! If only this poor man would look at things from a different perspective, he’d see that what he has is already enough!

7) CRUSHED BY OFFICE FURNITURE MAN

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This man is in a very late area in the game. He is being crushed by a gigantic pillar made of desks and office equipment.

This is extremely subtle and deep– only the truest Seekers of Truth can decode this mysterious sculpture. I think I’ll leave you all on your own to puzzle out its profound secrets.

8) FEARFUL MEDIEVAL MAN

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Wow! Look at that face!

I wonder what he’s afraid of. Let’s see…

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Don’t worry, Medieval Man. I’m scared of the windmill also.

9) THIS SHIT

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10) THE DOG

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This poor dog is not only made of rocks, but it’s completely, utterly alone, in the smallest and most forgettable corner of the island.

Saddest shit. 100% saddest shit, right here.

A list of scenarios Overwatch would consider “Plays of the Game”

This is a post in a collection of posts cataloging writing I did for Zam.com, a games site which later became ReadySet. I edited Zam.com from late 2015 to early 2018, and published this post on May 27, 2016. Zam.com is shutting down today and I wanted to republish my favorite writing from it, to preserve it.

This is one of the few pieces I was able to write for Zam.com which really expressed what I wanted to do with my time and energy while there. You’ll notice that whenever I wasn’t writing reviews or expo coverage, I was writing some pretty silly comedy stuff. This is the comedy piece I wrote for Zam which may have had the longest reach.

IN THE GAME: Everyone’s at critical health, but Zenyatta ults and the team pushes forward and wins the game

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: It’s high noon. Two die. Someone else who was previously damaged falls off a cliff

IN THE GAME: Reinhardt slowly and carefully leads a push that takes the control point ten seconds before timeout, allowing the team to go on and win the match

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: Justice rains from above, killing three, as usual

IN THE GAME: Lucio ults, allowing the team to survive a very serious attack. He finishes it off by right-clicking Genji off a cliff

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My terrible brother, Brian, ults as D-va and kills three, in similar fashion to all the other times he has done this in other nearly-identical games

IN THE GAME: Hanzo gets 21 solo kills over the course of a match

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My terrible brother, Brian, lobs grenades indiscriminately over a wall in the Temple of Anubis and kills four people completely randomly, with no skill or forethought

IN THE GAME: I buy my terrible brother, Brian, a copy of Overwatch, out of the goodness of my own heart

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: Brian rains justice from above, killing three, as usual

IN THE GAME: I graduate from high school with a 3.8 GPA while working 20 hours a week as an unpaid volunteer in a senior center, and also I am the chief librarian for the marching band

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My terrible brother, Brian, scores multiple football touchdowns, and is beloved by our community

IN THE GAME: I attend college and get perfect grades and also start a charity where college students teach at-risk children to play musical instruments

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: After my terrible brother, Brian, is expelled from his college for dealing prescription laxatives, my father still loans him $5000 to start his own yard-work company, which fails within six months. After the business fails he forgives the loan and says it was a gift.

IN THE GAME: I start my own business and successfully employ five employees within a year and win the local newspaper’s Best Workplace award

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My terrible brother Brian finally moves out of my parents’ house at age 33 and they throw him a party. At this party he becomes highly inebriated and vomits off the edge of a cliff, soaking three, as usual. But everyone only laughs

IN THE GAME: I get married to my partner of six years at a small but very elegant ceremony which we pay for ourselves

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My terrible brother Brian gets married to Marcia, his terrible wife, but due to Brian’s recent new arrests for dealing prescription laxatives they cannot afford a wedding of any size, so a large number of my relatives band together to pay for the ceremony. At the reception my father calls Brian “my most precious son” and “the best son in the world” and Brian cries tears of gratitude and thanks the whole community for coming together to help him get married

IN THE GAME: My children are perfect and beautiful and very kind and love doing volunteer work and community service

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: Everyone remembers the time my terrible brother Brian barfed off a cliff at his moving-out party and got three hikers covered in vomit. They think it’s hilarious and treasure this memory

IN THE GAME: My son Harvey gets into Stanford and nobody attends the cookout we hold in celebration

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: My nephew, Dillon, the son of my terrible brother Brian, is arrested for dealing Viagra at his high school, and nevertheless my mother and father pay for his legal defense and call him a wonderful boy and hug him a lot and tell him not to let the world get him down

IN THE GAME: While playing as Genji, I successfully lead the entire enemy team away from the control point, allowing my team to get in and capture it. After I die I return as Winston and successfully hold the point alone for an extended period of time. I am the architect of my team’s victory

IN THE PLAY OF THE GAME: In the same match, my terrible brother Brian rains justice from above, as usual, killing three people whom I had previously injured as Winston, stealing the glory for himself. While the Play of the Game plays, everyone in chat writes “MVP!!!” and “wow, good job!” and a member of the opposite team types, “BRIAN_DUDE200, you glorious man, please bear my children,” and Brian types back, “lol guys, it was nothing, haha,” which is, actually, true.

Strangling my dinner with my own two hands

This is a post in a collection of posts cataloging my writing on the games website Zam.com, which later became ReadySet. ReadySet is shutting down today, October 1. I edited it from late 2015 to early 2018.

This essay was published on Zam.com in February 2016. It was also listed in the 2016 “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup on Critical Distance.

The lede-buryingest, depths-hidingest videogames in the world are open-world survival-construction games.

In your average survival-construction game, you’ll spend your first three hours punching trees to death, or crafting simple tools out of rocks. You might tell yourself: “This game is about surviving, with rocks.” The first fifty times you die, the game is brutal. But ten or twelve hours later, your power usually escalates so dramatically that you’re crafting cannons or building solar-powered cattle farms or summoning robot soldiers through a death portal. “I’ve learned recently that the robot death portal mechanic is the real meat of this game,” you’ll say. Fifty hours in, you’ll probably be teaching yourself basic electrical engineering so that you can hand-program an even larger robot to kill dragons for you on the moon. “I understand now that the real endgame is moon dragons,” you’ll tell your friends. They’ll nod sympathetically.

Chances are, your friends had similar experiences in Minecaft, Terraria, Starbound, Don’t Starve, and many other similar games. Minecraft was the first extremely popular sandbox game to so carefully hide so many of its core systems and challenges. If you handed someone a copy of Minecraft with no further explanation, they could play it as a basic survival game for a hundred hours without realizing that it is possible to automate a farm, or to make a hell-portal, or to build an automatic machine inside the hell-portal for killing monsters and stealing their bacon.

Minecraft and many of the games it has inspired are goddamn icebergs, and the part of the game below the water is generally the bit where you craft a cannon and shoot dragons on the moon. Some, like Don’t Starve (and a few of the survival-construction-horror hybrids) really put you through the wringer. They start you out with bare fists and let you die a hundred times before getting anywhere interesting, but they often also delight in eventually dropping a magic-runed diamond sword into your palm and whispering: go wild. I argue that no matter how they market themselves, these games are more about the feeling of growing strength than they are about the feeling of miserable failure.

But the way these games grow your power is often disjointed and nonsensical, even within the fiction of the game itself. In Subnautica, an early-access underwater survival-construction game, I have built a two-story-high submarine that I now live in. It carries another, smaller submarine which I use for short trips; it contains four fishtanks that hold my extra food and around twelve wall-mounted cases that I have built to house my vast fortune. Nevertheless, when my fishtanks empty out, I must go outside and chase down and catch individual fish with my bare hands.

It’s absurd. I am the sole human inhabitant of the planet; I own many fabulous submarines; I have dug a tunnel over a thousand meters deep using a magical terraforming claw; yet I catch my dinner with my bare hands, one fish at a time. I must be a strange kind of space explorer if I can build a robot which builds submarines, but not a machine to catch fish. The developers will soon be adding plant-farming to the game, but my magnificent, submarine-owning self will still be the planet’s sole farmer. There is no machine that cooks and serves me whenever I please. I can only imagine such a thing–and believe me, I have!

The most universal characteristic of this genre, I think, is that these games inspire and empower us beyond their ability to actually satisfy that inspiration. Even when they get close, the results are often incoherent. We become ship captains who strangle our own fish dinners; we become the middle-managers of our own fantasy worlds. The stuff we end up making ourselves do is sometimes only marginally entertaining. These games never allow you to become so powerful that you are not responsible for cooking your own dinner.

In Minecraft, I once built an enormous tower containing an entirely automated farm. I spent all day sitting in a tiny room in the basement frantically emptying hundreds of sheaves of wheat from crates and stuffing them into a gridwall of ovens. I am very skilled, I told myself. I am Good At Minecraft. In Don’t Starve I once spent something like four hours repeatedly cooking meatballs. I felt weary and hassled but I had five refrigerators all filled with meatballs, which is a Very Big Deal. In Starbound, you are capable of piloting a starship and forging space suits, but not of getting someone to pick your carrots while you’re out of town.

Much more impressive than five fridges of meatballs.

Much more impressive than five fridges of meatballs.

I suppose that someone could mod in something to cook my dinner for me. Modding, of course, is the universal response to all of this genre’s absurd limitations. Minecraft inspired its players to such scales of creation that they immediately began modding out mapsize restrictions, creating complicated third-party design tools, and expanding on the honest-to-god electrical engineering already in the game. It is possible to build a calculator in Minecraft. It is possible to build the game Snake in Starbound.

Typical power escalation in survival-construction games leads quite naturally into this kind of modding gameplay. A player begins one of these games as a naked, helpless fool, punching trees to death. Eventually, they master their immediate survival, then their local environment, then the entire in-game world. And then they may master the game itself, taking the build-what-you-want ethos out into the real world and modding whatever bizarre shit they want to see into the game itself. There is a unity of ambition shared between the actual content of games like Minecraft and the busy modders who are adding cyclopses and toilets and catapults and portal guns into these games. The developers are probably on that continuum as well: I’m sure many of them are making these games because Minecraft inspired them beyond its ability to satisfy.

So: from bare fists to diamond swords to two-story-high submarines to modding in a portal gun because we felt like it, this entire genre has taken a totally “unrealistic” attitude toward progression. It’s not even remotely similar to real wilderness survival, and we know that—and we love it.

Most of us know that real wilderness survival/the real threat of death are extremely stressful and not particularly fun. But almost every single one of these games uses the fantasy of “realism” to make itself attractive. Even survival games set on alien planets and in magical worlds use hunger and thirst meters and force us to cook our own dinners every goddamn day. You don’t need to scavenge and eat MREs in Call of Duty, and we accept that for the same reasons we accept that action heroes in movies never stop to use the bathroom: admitting that our characters burp and shit harms that particular fantasy. But in these survival games, our biological functions are definitely part of the fantasy. We want mechanics which remind us constantly that we’re supposed to be a “real person” in these games, with human needs; we want our experiences to feel at least marginally “real.”

Above: my very magnificent large-size submarine. Look upon my works, ye mighty, etc. etc.

But we don’t want things to be as hard as real life, and we want the heights of power we reach to be unrealistically mighty. And, for some reason, we’re comfortable with systems that are simultaneously vastly more powerful and bizarrely less effectual than the agency that an actual survivalist would have.

Less effectual because, in most of these games, it is nearly impossible to seriously abuse our tremendous power. We may have fucked up Actual Nature in real life, but in games like Don’t Starve, Minecraft, Subnautica, and others, our hard-won leaps of technology generally don’t cause any systemic ill-effects. You can never overfish in Minecraft. You can always move your submarine to a new zone in Subnautica. In Starbound you can always find a new planet with trees to chop; in Terraria’s hard-mode, you can buy a device that lets you create whatever “good” or “evil” biomes you wish. In Don’t Starve you can deplete an environment of useful resources, but once you’re powerful enough to do that, you’re probably also powerful enough to search in caves or farther afield for new resources. There is no reason to not become as powerful as absolutely possible. Our power is unrealistically earthshattering—but in the end, it’s also almost completely benign.

In other words: it’s comfortable and entertaining. It gives us all the pros without many serious cons. Power fantasies that deliver pros without cons have been a huge part of digital games since their very earliest days. They make real problems feel simple and manageable, and some of them help us grapple with or neutralize our fears. We consider them fun; they make us feel great. Survival-construction games, in the end, are usually not about how scary nature is, no matter how they might market themselves: they’re power fantasies about nature. And modding is our meta-power-fantasy. Once we’ve controlled nature in the game, we can control it from beyond the game. We can tell it how to behave. We can be gods.

Many survival-construction adventures really do ask us to imagine what it would be like if we were stranded out in the middle of nowhere and had to build our own houses out of sticks, but very few of them take that question seriously. We don’t seem particularly interested in exploring that fantasy right now, outside of a few extremely difficult games like The Long Dark. In many of the genre’s most popular games, we don’t struggle to build houses or become small-time farmers; we become all-powerful overlords and nature-masters who are also still small-time farmers. Our power is immense, but weirdly limited: it has none of the negative effects of real nature-taming power, and none of the most convenient benefits, either.

It’s possible that we wouldn’t enjoy those benefits in a game. Most games are trying to provide players with a constant stream of interesting things to do; in the real world, truly powerful people’s agency is usually expressed almost exclusively through the control of information and the communication of orders and opinions. Quite a lot of them spend more time writing memos, building spreadsheets, and maintaining business relationships than they spend doing visually or athletically-exciting things. But our open-world survival games are all about cresting new vistas, fighting new monsters, and building our own castles by hand. None of them have a spreadsheets endgame.

But, you know: someone could mod that in.

I was on Script Lock

The Script Lock podcast, created by LA-area games writers Nick and Max Folkman, had me and Cat Manning on to talk about games writing and freelance work.

You can find the episode we appear in here!

We spent a lot of time talking about what parts of freelance work are most difficult and stressful. All four of us do freelance games writing work– Nick and Max full time, Cat and I part time– and although we’re speaking from a writing perspective here, I think a lot of the stuff we say in this episode is applicable to freelancers of all stripes. Basically:

  • Don’t cut your rate to make yourself tastier to clients, because you will extremely regret it
  • Make sure they give you a contract
  • Make sure you protect your ass in the contract (with limits on revisions, schedules which aren’t ridiculous, etc)
  • The worst red flag is when the person who hires you doesn’t know what they want from you
  • If you work in games, when you go to events, don’t only hang out with people from your discipline. Meet people from other disciplines, because games are multidisciplinary and your support network needs to include other types of creators
  • This episode also contains my classic rant about how much IFComp’s rules suck, refined here on perhaps its 50th or 60th performance

In the podcast I said I was available to help encourage young people who are getting into freelance games writing to charge more for their work. This is 100% true and you can reach out to me on Twitter any time to ask about it. I will encourage you to charge more money for your time.

Why I like making bots

If you’ve ever spent time in a room full of writers, you’ve probably witnessed at least one riff competition–that phenomenon where someone tells a joke, and then immediately everyone in the room blurts out minor variations on it. If you’re operating under weak leadership, it’s a surefire way to derail a meeting. Mutual riffing can be a wonderful way to express a creative friendship. And, incredibly, it’s also a great way to fight with your creative partners without actually admitting you don’t get along.

I’ve participated in more than my fair share of these dumbass competitions. In college, I was on the staff of a humor magazine, and we would spend two or three hours at a time just sitting around in the “Publication Suite” not even actually working on the magazine–just trying over and over again to one-up one another by reworking each others’ jokes. The funny thing about competitive but unstructured joke-telling between egotistical teens is that no one can ever really win. If you don’t want to give your friend the satisfaction of victory, you can simply avoid laughing. We would also do this riffing at max volume, so the staff of the leftist political magazine that met in the room next door would sometimes actually come over and ask us about what they’d heard through the walls. They sometimes even asked us why we never laughed at each other’s jokes. I never admitted that it was because we were trying to defeat one another, but that’s what was going on.

After several years of stone-faced riffing, I took a hard look at myself and decided not to participate in this kind of bullshit anymore. If someone tells a good joke, I laugh. If it’s time to group-riff on some ridiculous bullshit, I participate, but it’s not like I’m trying to kick anyone’s ass anymore. And when I stopped treating it like a battle of wills, this kind of exercise actually became a lot more interesting.

I started thinking less about myself and more about the joke. Group riffing was less about comparing the jokes we were telling, and more about exploring the edges of the joke’s possibility space. What funny idea are we actually talking about? What is its best expression? Can we all feel proud of the end result together? I was basically learning how to function in a writers’ room, which may (hopefully??) someday contribute to a bigger part of my career than it currently does. It’s a pretty neat experience!

If you can play well with others in a creative environment, you will almost always be better-equipped to tell good jokes. Anyone who’s tried a little stand up comedy knows that tiny variations in the way you tell a joke can completely change the way an audience receives it–so you need help identifying good variations, and you need a safe place to test them out. A joke isn’t a sentence. It’s a huge web of sentences, a whole decision-tree of tweaks and modifications that you might spend months blundering your way through before you finally arrive at the version that feels best.

All of this is more fun in a group environment than a solo one. It’s much, much faster in a group, too. You iterate faster. You get new suggestions for the joke before you’ve even finished your sentence.

You know what’s the fastest way to iterate on a joke, though? If you can write a computer program that tells you ten versions of it every half-second.

This is what twitter bots are, for me. When you write a twitter bot, you’re forced to define the entire possibility space of the joke–a powerful exercise for anyone who’s really trying to understand the joke they think they’re telling. You have to design the systems that assemble or express the joke, which can be a pretty exciting experience, particularly if you’re not used to thinking about how or why you build your sentences the way you do. And, of course, you have to write the whole body of text the bot is drawing from, so you can’t half-ass this exploration the way you can when you’re just lounging around a conference table with six other tired fools.

When you write a twitter bot, you also have the tools and the audience necessary to check and see how well you’re doing. You don’t have to wait until publication to see if it really worked. You don’t have to delay feedback until the meeting starts. When you’re using a Glitch template or publishing on Cheap Bots Done Quick, you can just generate whole cascades of these jokes, whenever you want, in disgustingly massive quantities, until the output satisfies you and your audience and your trusted joke-friends.

And unlike a joke you write and ship once, the bot itself is constantly exploring and defining the joke’s entire possibility space. When you’re riffing in a room with other writers, nobody can see how cool and smart you were for thinking of that weird gross version of the joke that never shipped. With a twitter bot, though, you can write a single massive living joke that roams back and forth from one end of the idea to another, spitting out every possible variation of that emotional moment.

It’s like a joke amoeba. It’s like watching one of those r/woahdude videos where a square blooms into a cube and then a hypercube– a joke is never really best expressed by only one sentence. Set the joke free: tell every version of it that ever existed. That’s the real joke. That’s the joke the way I saw it, anyway, when I was trying to write it.

I recently moved all my bots to the Mastodon bot-friendly instance botsin.space. I’m still adding more, and may do a roundup post later. If you want a safe place to experiment with text or image-generating bots, botsin.space is a great place to check out.

Never made a bot before? Here’s some useful resources you can use:

  • This tutorial will teach you how to use Tracery, the system I use for generating text for my bots.
  • This explainer will give you a rundown on what Mastodon is and how it works.
  • This article will explain why Twitter isn’t such a great place to put bots anymore, and offer some background for why I’ve moved mine to Mastodon.
  • Cheap Bots Done Quick will host your Tracery bots on Twitter. Cheap Bots Toot Sweet will do the same on Mastodon.
  • You can also use this Glitch.com template to make your own Mastodon bot. It’s a little more complex that CBDQ/CBTS, but Glitch.com is a cool platform to try out in general, so I’d give it a shot if I were you!

This is a book about French peasants doing religious crimes

I was allowed to do another demo night talk at Glitch City Demo Night this year! I talked about my favorite history book, Montaillou, and tried to convince the crowd to read it.

This is partially a response to a talk I did last year, about how Nero tried to kill his mom with a collapsible party boat. The point I was trying to make with that talk is that stories about murder and privilege and wealth and suffering in history are attractive and interesting, but that most ordinary people in the past lived totally normal lives involving zero assassination whatsoever. After I gave that talk, someone (Evan Hill? Nathan Grayson? I forget!) challenged me to actually create the interesting lesson about totally ordinary people’s personal experiences that I called for in my talk– so this is it.

Check out the video below. Please turn on subtitles, because the first 30 seconds of audio are messed up! The full text of the talk (including slides, once again made by Brendon Chung) is below.

When you’re done, check out the full playlist of talks! This year there were talks about media criticism, why and how to sign contracts with your creative partners, extinct megafauna, and more.

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This is Jacques Fournier. He was a Catholic Bishop from France who lived during the early 1300s and later became Pope. He was really good at doing inquisitions. Fournier would go into these remote places in France and interrogate heretics super hard. ⚡

Montaillou (1)

This is a book called “Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error.” It is a 1975 semi-anthropological, semi-sociological dive into the home life of French peasants living in a town called Montaillou high in the Pyrenees mountains. It is based on Jacques Fournier’s meticulous inquisition notes, and it is the best book about history that I have ever read.

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In the late 1200s and early 1300s, only 250 people lived in Montaillou. There were not so many different last names. There was one priest, a bunch of shepherds, a handful of major households. The reason Fournier spent so much time worrying about this tiny group of people was that many of them were secretly Cathars.

Montaillou (2)

Catharism was a mystic Christian heresy. They believed in a good god, who created the spiritual world, and an evil god, who created our bodies and the physical world we all live in. They believed in reincarnation, and that human beings were actually genderless angel spirits trapped in physical bodies. They would go climb up into the mountains and do secret religious shit. The ultimate level of Catharism was being a sexless vegetarian known as a “Parfait,” which translates as “Perfect.” Their belief system was so strange and weird that historians have spent centuries trying to figure out exactly where in the world it came from. They still don’t all agree.

Montaillou (3)

In Montaillou, the most powerful family was the Clergues. They were largely Cathars. The weirdest Clergue was Pierre Clergue, a Cathar who was also a Catholic Priest who was ALSO a massive fuckboy who was having sex with 12 different confirmed mistresses in the area. Not very parfait. He and his powerful brother bullied everyone, and converted a shit ton of their neighbors to Catharism.

Eventually, Pierre informed on the town and the entire adult population was arrested by Fournier’s inquisition.

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The interrogations produced pages and pages and pages of their paraphrased words describing their families, friendships, rivalries, religious beliefs, and sexual experiences. IT IS BUCK WILD. And it is detailed and evocative and as drenched in setting and sensation as some of the best fiction writing I have enjoyed.

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In this book, there’s a short description of two women sitting in the sun, arguing about what it feels like to get burned at the stake… while their daughters pick lice from their hair. There’s a scene where a man has a fight with his wife, so he goes for a walk, and while he’s out there he sees his neighbors have their lights on, so he sneaks over to spy on them and climbs up onto their roof to lift the roof mats up and peer into their house. What a detail, right? There are scenes where women kiss their babies, where people buy and sell things, and where men argue about the nature of God. Reading this book, you can imagine the sensations and emotions these peasants felt while going about their daily lives.

And there are hundreds and hundreds of perfect little physical details in here. The book shows how people greeted each other, the words they used when they fought, how they took their clothes off to sleep, how they cajoled one another into having sex, how they negotiated lodging and cut contracts with servants, how they made enemies into friends by cooking them a pie, how and when they gossiped. It also covers the details of their heresy, the conflict and trickery of their constant attempts to convert or expose one another. One classic method a Cathar could use to test whether someone truly believed in Catharism was to challenge them to kill a chicken. If you refused to kill the chicken, you were a good Cathar.

Montaillou (4)

Catharism offered a slow drip of danger and drama into these people’s lives. There is a scene where a Cathar woman tries to convince a Cathar man to kill his sick Catholic brother before he could recover and rat them out to the church, and the man replies,”if you have my brother killed, I will eat you alive with my teeth, if I can be revenged no other way.” It feels almost voyeuristic to glimpse into these 800-year-old arguments.

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Pop culture persuades us all to think of medieval peasants as being impossibly impoverished straight-laced religious extremists who had no fun and universally took the bible maximum seriously. But some people in Montaillou were gay, and some were actually atheists. This book was written forty years ago, and I would not consider it perfect, but it is a compassionate and far-reaching examination of people who lived so long ago that their raw human familiarity is surprising and deeply emotionally affecting. These stories are 800 years old. The feeling I get when I see humanity winking at me down through the ages is almost religious. This is a story that I am grateful to have read, but we could have lost it. We have lost the stories of so many ordinary people all throughout history that having something like Montaillou to hold on to feels incredibly precious.

This is not a super easy book to read, but it’s not particularly hard, either. It’s just about people. If reading about history bored you in high school, I recommend hunting down Montaillou and skipping through it until you find something about heretical sex or delousing. Or just a story about a subletter from 800 years ago dealing with his landlord. Or just a story where someone’s humanity leaps out at you unexpectedly and catches your breath. Your lives are not remotely similar to the parfaits of Montaillou, but you do share something with them. It’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly what, but if you read this book, I think you will probably feel it. Thank you.

I wrote a scenario for the Ellipses tabletop system!

Xalavier Nelson Jr. has been rolling out new content for his accessible tabletop roleplaying system, Ellipses. I wrote one of the scenarios in his most recent update! It’s a session starter set in a 24-hour chain restaurant called “Benny’s” which serves breakfast food all night long. Slam me, Benny’s. Eggs over… Orlando. Or something.

Anyway, if you are interested in a tabletop roleplaying system accessible enough for the people in your life who don’t often play tabletop RPGs, Ellipses is a good choice. You can get the system rules for free here, and pay to download the scenario pack.

Ellipses session starters are super varied! Some take place in fantasy worlds, some in slightly-off versions of our society. Mine just takes place in the regular-ass real world. I can think of times in my life when I’d have really enjoyed knowing about a roleplaying system as flexible, accessible, and transparent as this one. Check it out!

I’m gonna be editing The Forgotten City

This E3, a new project I’m working on was announced! The Forgotten City is an Unreal Engine remake/reimagining of a very popular Skyrim mod of the same name. Check out the trailer:

I’ve played the mod– it’s a whole-ass six-plus-hour Skyrim story mod with full voice acting and one of the most wild goddamn plots I’ve ever seen in a fan-made mod. (Also, it won an Australian Writer’s Guild award, which is pretty neat.) Even if you’ve played too much Skyrim in your life already (as I probably have), the weird shit in this story still feels very fresh and inventive. I recommend playing it!

I’m stoked as hell to be editing Nick Pearce’s script for the Unreal version. Even if you’ve played the mod before, I think the new version will surprise you!