You got this, Brutadon! — Global Game Jam 2017

Last weekend, I once again drove up to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus to participate in the Global Game Jam. Facebook has a really, really cushy site– four catered meals, including beer and wine at dinner. A bunch of the people I like doing jams with live in the area (or work for Facebook), so it’s a good deal all around!

This year, Kent Sutherland, Rosstin Murphy, Kellie Medlin, Brook Nichols and I cracked out a game for the Amazon Alexa platform in two days. (Alexa is the platform that runs on Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot products.) Our game is called called “You Got This, Brutadon!” and it’s a voice-controlled adventure game where you play the hype man for a kaiju battle between your friend, Brutadon, and the hideous Gromulox. YGTB contains about fifty different randomized battle events written by me and Kent. There are two endings. We wanted to make a voice-controlled game that was centered around the experience of speaking or conversing– not just merely a combat game controlled with voice commands, but a game about talking. YGTB certainly lives up to our goals in that respect!

You can see a full playthrough of You Got This, Brutadon! here:

Although we haven’t passed Amazon’s certification process yet, we have uploaded a working build of our app to itch.io. If you have an AWS account and an Alexa, you might be able to load the game onto your own device. If you wait a couple weeks, though, we’ll have a polished, sound-designed version of the app up on the Alexa app store.

If you own an Echo or Echo Dot and have ever taken a look at the “skills” store (“skills” is Alexa bullshit for “apps”), you’ll probably have noticed that the vast majority of Alexa apps suck. Since the Alexa store is not currently monetized, there’s no great incentive for anyone to put a lot of time and effort into polishing up a really good Alexa app. The “games” section is practically all trivia apps, and it seems like the vast majority of all Alexa apps, period, are “facts” apps– Bird Facts, Bacon Facts, Cat Facts, etc. These facts apps appear to be the “hello world” of Alexa development.

What I’m saying is that You Got This, Brutadon! is already better than, like… a conservative 90% of all Alexa games? I mean, I’m biased, but I and some of my teammates were really shocked with the low quality of the vast majority of Alexa apps. Lots of them just seem like stupid experiments, and a lot have extremely low utility. There’s a color wheel app that does almost nothing. This was one of the top ranked utility apps during the weekend we were making this game. I’m sorry, but this is pretty damn ridiculous!

Going through the certification process, I’ve also learned that Amazon has some pretty strict rules for user interactions. They contain some bizarre design restrictions– like, you’re not supposed to include any commands in the app that the app does not explicitly prompt the player to say. This means that they’re uncomfortable with apps where the player has to guess command intents. It should be possible to get some kinds of command-guessing gameplay in there without breaking the rules. Right now, however they’re already asking us to put command prompts into Brutadon in a few annoying ways.

The big thing that gets me right now is that a bunch of IF classics are focused around experimentation, command-guessing, and avoiding prompts, like Aisle. If something like Aisle could make it onto the Alexa app store easily, then I’d say the Echo would be in a good place for game development. (That said, I haven’t actually tried to make something like Aisle, so I don’t know how much pushback we’d get trying to do that.)

Oh– and they should let us make money with these goddamn apps. Until then, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to spend a lot of time seriously making a polished, content-dense game for this device.

Check out Utopia Jam

I don’t know how many people habitually read my blog anymore who don’t also follow me on twitter, but if you’re not on social media– I’m running an itch.io jam in February, and you should participate!

The jam is called “Utopia Jam,” and it’s for games which take place in or help imagine better worlds. Check out the jam page for more information about the subject matter.

For inspiration, we’ve cited artistic subcultures, books, movies, and TV shows which take place in optimistic futures. Star Trek, the Culture series, Solarpunk art, and Ursula LeGuin’s blurry “Hainish Cycle” are all examples of optimistic futurism.

I’m running this jam with Cat Manning and we’re going to be making a game for it together. So far, over 50 people have expressed interest in participating through itch.io, so it seems like the right jam at the right time.

I (and Zam) got some stuff on Critical Distance’s videogame crit roundup

This year, one article I wrote ended up on Critical Distance’s “This Year In Videogame Blogging” roundup. These lists are pretty much always good summaries of the breadth of games crit in any given year. You should skim this list! I was particularly the section on theory and design criticism, and the bit on industry criticism.

The article I wrote which ended up on the list was “Strangling my dinner with my own two hands,” a piece I ran at Zam earlier this year. It’s an essay about power escalation in “survival-construction” games like Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, Subnautica, and Don’t Starve.

Most of the games in this genre seem inspired in greater or lesser degree by Minecraft, and their strategies for escalating player power all seem to bend in the same direction as Minecraft’s. You start by punching trees. After many hours, you end up so powerful you can program giant calculators or make automatic farms two hundred stories high– but the game never releases you from the responsibility of harvesting and cooking your own dinner, fish by fish. No matter how they might market themselves, they are more about having power over nature than about the feeling of being threatened by nature. Nevertheless, they render that power absurd by also forcing their players to perform mundane survival busywork long after they’ve gained godlike control over their surroundings. In the piece, I also get around to talking about how survival-construction games rarely let player power impact nature in a negative way. It’s a toothless, exaggerated, illogical kind of power, and for some reason, we all love it.

I have a long-time obsession with survival-construction games (which has obviously culminated in the fact that I want to make one, hah) and I’m glad that people liked the best piece, I think, that I have managed to write about them.

Zam, the publication I manage, also had pieces by several other authors cited in the CD roundup. Here’s a few:

The Social Justice Witcher by Rowan Kaiser – a great piece about how Geralt’s mystery-solving techniques actually parallel strategies you’re supposed to use for mitigating systemic oppression in the real world.

Why is everyone criticizing Bioshock Infinite these days? by Cameron Kunzelman – a piece about why a longstanding critical take on BI suddenly erupted into public consciousness during the game’s remaster/rerelease.

“Real world issues” in games like Deus Ex are there for marketing reasons, not for art by John Brindle – a piece about why attempts to integrate real social criticism into videogames invariably fail (because they’re usually wedged in to get attention).

Battlefield 1 and Modern Memory, again by John Brindle – a fantastic piece about the difference in the way that American and British players percieve the (good? poor?) taste of making a game about World War One. (Kudos to you if you’ve read the book this title references, hah.) Very proud of Brindle for getting into this list twice at Zam!

1979 Revolution: A snapshot of chaos and propaganda, by Robert Rath – a great overview of the history of revolutionary politics which underpins one of this year’s most interesting narrative games.

I’m super proud of everyone who wrote for us in 2016, in general, and I am particularly pleased that some of our best work made the Critical Distance list! If I could have added my own suggestions, I’d have also suggested some stuff by Bruno Dias, like this piece about Dark Souls 3, and some of our more unusual reviews, like this Aevee Bee review of Fire Emblem Fates. (However it seems as if this list deliberately avoids reviews? Anyway, read that one. I liked it.) I honestly don’t have a recent memory recall good enough to make a comprehensive list of all my favorite articles from 2016, so I’m sure I’ll think of others I liked later, but this is what’s rising to the top of my mind right now.

I do, however, have at least one very strong opinion about other publications’ articles that should be on this list: they shoulda had a Pokemon Go section, and it shoulda contained this incredible Miami Herald article about digital redlining in the game. It was one of the best and most relevant pieces written in the last year about how digital worlds intersect with our physical one. I understand that Critical Distance focuses on writing from, essentially, “game blog land,” however nebulously it’s defined, but I think that branching out to more traditional media for writing about games is absolutely worth it. I suppose it’s on me to pay attention when the submission process opens up for 2017!