Wednesday, April 25, 2012

PAX East 2012, In Twenty Disorganized Thoughts

I went to PAX East in Boston this year. It's sad that I'm starting to write this post now, two weeks after the trip, but I swear, I had a lot going on between then and now, some of which is showcased below. This is going to be one crazy, disorganized post.

1. Driving Sucks
I broke down my trip into two parts both ways. I started by spending the night with some friends in Mansfield (about three hours from home) on Wednesday night, then drove the rest of the way to Boston (about seven hours) on Thursday. I've got to say, I'm really glad I broke the trip down, because I-88 and I-90 are terrifyingly depressing stretches of road to drive solo. I really wish I had a chatting buddy with me, as the limited supply of CDs I had in the car (half mix tapes of music, half Radiolab episodes) really couldn't keep my attention off of how freaking long I had to go. It didn't help that the GPS in my car was displaying my ETA, a time that seemed to go down a single minute for every three hours I went five over the speed limit, but jumped up three minutes every time I stopped at a toll booth for twenty seconds. Also: Toll booths. What the heck.

2. 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall
Having a Boston Lager in BostonThe last ten minutes of my drive into Boston was about an hour long. After exiting the turnpike, I found myself sitting at one traffic light for about thirty minutes, as it seemed to be where about ten lanes of traffic among four different ramps converged into one three-lane street. After finally finding my hotel (and shouting "LA QUINTA!" with embarrassing jubilation), I noticed that there was a restaurant across the street called Ninety Nine (or 99, I can't figure out which is the proper nomenclature). I made a mental note of the place, as I hadn't had any dinner yet. I checked into my hotel room (king size suite, because hey, it was the same price as the queen size) and found a menu for the restaurant sitting on the desk. Well played, Ninety Nine. Well played.

Sort of a New England-based Applebee's sort of place (except with far better food, service, and less likely to be where a girlfriend would dump me), I found myself there every night enjoying a meal. On the night I arrived, I got there in time for bar trivia, which I absolutely tanked at (but I tanked quite proudly). And yes, I had the obligatory pint of Boston Lager while in Boston. I mean, c'mon, you'd do it too. On the whole, I genuinely enjoyed the place, and I'd recommend stopping by one if you find yourself in the area.

3. Brought to You by the Letter T
As I mentioned before, I have a weird soft spot for public transportation. I was excited to use Boston's T for my travel back and forth between the hotel and the convention center. I still take pride in the fact that I can rattle off my route without any trouble (from Sullivan Square, take the Orange Line to Downtown Crossing, transfer to the Red Line and go to South Station, transfer to the Silver Line and go to World Trade Center). Since I was trying not to miss my frequent changeovers, I didn't have much time to let my mind wander like I usually do during the rides, but it was still a fun experience nonetheless.

4. Anticipay-yay-tion
A weird side note to the above: It's not hard to tell who's going to the convention center, particularly for a gaming conference. Never mind the cosplayers, you could tell the convention-goers apart because they always traveled in tight packs and stayed together on the trains. In addition, there was always a sense of anticipation in the air the closer you got to the convention center, and the anticipation grew as more people hopped on your train. When everyone hopped off the Red Line at South Station and crammed onto the Silver Line buses, you knew that the party was just getting started.

However, this effect also worked in reverse. Every night, I found myself hopping on a bus toward the red line with people, and everyone had that sort of afterglow of awesome about them. Then, as everyone split into different directions, there were fewer and fewer people with me, and the sense of unadulterated bliss wound back down into lonely sadness. I'm pretty sure I was the only convention-goer at my hotel, so the last stretch back to the hotel was always a bit depressing. If anything though, this just serves as a testament to how awesome the conference was.

5. Spoiler Alert, It Doesn't End Well
How awesome was the conference? Awesome enough that I don't think I'll go back.

Well, maybe. See, a large part of the reason I wanted to go to PAX East was to see if there was some way I could get my foot in the door working in the gaming industry at all. I even printed out ten resumes just in case. On Friday, I spent a decent amount of time going to sessions presented by different folks in the industry, much like any conference, except significantly awesome-r because the topic was gaming. Unfortunately, one of those sessions I went to was specifically on how to get into the gaming industry. The panel seemed to be a bunch of experienced, but overly-bitter folks who argued back and forth about whether it was better to have far too much on your resume to show off, or to have no resume at all and have some presentable product that you can hand to any potential employer in lieu of a resume proper. I have neither, and I don't foresee either happening soon. I graduated with a degree in broadcasting, not computer programming or graphic design or art or music (well, a minor in music), and I'm not in a position where I can readily turn around and go learn a(nother) new trade. So, I decided right then and there that as much as I love games, I could never make them for a living.

6. Let's Talk

However, however, however. One other thing I realized is that I do have that broadcasting experience, and the know-how to use it. Thus, on Saturday, the impromptu interviews began.

Having decided to skip out on any sessions I had planned to attend that day, I spent most of Saturday on the exhibition hall floor. Of all the big brand games that were featured, I found myself gravitating toward one cluster of booths. The Indie Megabooth was a collaboration of sixteen different independent developers who, rather than settling for tiny booths tucked along the outer walls of the hall, banded together to form a giant block of awesomeness smack dab in the mid-- eh, it was still kinda close to the edge. But it was still awesome. After I played around with a few of the games, I had an idea. I pulled out my camera and started to interview the developers about their games. Nothing too tremendous, just the basic "tell me about your game," "what platforms," and "release date" questions. Later, after returning home, I strung them together to make this video.
The video was featured on Jay is Games, but don't click the link yet! There are spoilers for later stuff in there!

7. He Wasn't Wearing a Pink Suit
I'd like to take a moment to pull some of those awesome Indie Megabooth entries aside and give them a little more attention. One game I'm particularly looking forward to is Antichamber, which is sort of like other first-person puzzle games like Portal 2 in the sense that OH MY GOD WOW WOW WOW. The world of Antichamber plays a lot with M.C. Escher-like "physics" where you have infinite staircases and rooms that seem to double back on themselves as if the entire room has changed its position. I didn't record this bit in the interview, but I was talking to the developer, Alexander Bruce, and he said that he wanted to make a game that broke every possible conventional gaming rule that you're used to. At the very start of the game you see a chasm with the word "JUMP" floating over it. Your instinct is to jump, expecting to make it across the gap. Absolutely not. That which you think you know coming into the game is ultimately challenged in one form or another in Antichamber, and it takes careful observation and fantastic lateral thinking skills to make it through the game. I managed to play a portion of the game, with a crowd of people watching my moves on a TV. Without spoiling anything, there was one puzzle that one member of the crowd blurted out the answer to. The developer, looking to give me a hint, pointed out what he said to me, and I responded honestly, "I would have never thought of that. That's amazing." Seriously, I absolutely can't wait for this game to come out. It's that awesome.

8. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA! A Reckless Disregard for Fanboyishness
If there's one interview I feel I really screwed up in my impromptu reporting, it was the one with Dejobaan Games. As I was preparing for the trip, I thought about what game companies I knew that were actually based in Boston and wouldn't be traveling from the west coast just to be here. I was excited when I realized that Dejobaan was from Boston. I think I actually did a fist pump in the laundry room when the thought occurred to me. Yeah, I was that excited.

Lo and behold, Dejobaan was featuring two games at the Indie Megabooth. One was Force=MassxAcceleration, an iPad port of their AaaAAA! skydiving games, and a new prototype called Drunken Robot Pornography, where you faced off against a year's worth of mechanical robotic centerfolds that got progressively harder as you went along. Quite cool-looking. There were plenty of jellyfish-laden red shirts in their portion of the booth, and I pulled one (Elliot Borenstein) aside for the interview. Somehow, things went wrong at this point. Dejobaan was the second interview I did, and I hadn't really nailed down a specific format for the questions I wanted to ask. That, plus the fact that I'm a bit of a Dejobaan fanboy left me awkwardly speechless near the end of our interview as I struggled to come up with anything to ask him. Things went pretty smoothly after that, but I feel terrible about how unprofessional I was at that time. Elliot, if you're somehow reading this, I'm really sorry. Also, why are you Googling yourself? Get back to DRP. Or make me some more TWEOTW levels.

9. Break In, Break Out, Break Down
One fun thing about playing these games and talking to the developers was getting to be unsuspecting beta testers. Monaco is a top-down maze-slash-heist game, described to me by creator Andy Schatz as "Pac-Man meets Hitman." On each level, you can see the layout of the area like a floor plan, but all of the traps and enemies remain hidden until you've actually "spotted" them in your line of vision, which is a really cool touch. Before I spoke with Andy about his game, I sat down at one of the laptops set up and played a bit of a single-player game (seriously, the multiplayer looks way too crazy for me to handle). I got a few levels in playing as the Lockpick when the game suddenly froze up on me. After a few moments of hesitation, the laptop then rebooted and went to a crazy BIOS setup screen. I sat in the chair, shocked and afraid I was about to be killed for destroying their computer. Luckily, Andy came over and said it was a known issue (I think it had something to do with the laptop's video card) and that they were working on it.

But yeah, Monaco looks cool, and I'm looking forward to it coming out as well. It'll be a while before I tackle the multiplayer though.

10. Future to the Back
All of the games in the Indie Megabooth looked really awesome, but I wanted to give one more really quick shout-out for Retro/Grade, which hails itself as the first video game played entirely in reverse, credits to tutorial. I'm going to get my time travel terminology completely wrong here, but due to a rift in the space-time continuum, an entire space war has to be undone in order to preserve the universe. Thus, you've got to line your ship up with the shots that you fired moving back toward your gun, as well as dodge your enemies' bullets moving back toward theirs in reverse. I didn't get the chance to sit down and play this one, and I'm not describing it that well here, but this is definitely another game I'm looking forward to.

11. Of My Own Volition
Right next door to the Indie Megabooth was a selection of six more indie developers selected as the Boston Indiecade, featured by the convention itself. Rather stupidly, I didn't grab any interviews, but I tried most of the games and talked with the developers. One game that caught my attention was SpellTower, a sort of Boggle/Tetris hybrid game for mobile devices where you clear words to prevent rising stacks of letters from reaching the top of the screen. I'm not wholly sure the concept is actually that novel, but the sleek presentation and varied gameplay makes this game quite fun. However, the highlight for me was when I picked up one of the demo iPads and started playing the game myself. I'm sort of a word game nut, so without realizing it, I was quickly approaching the high score on the iPad. What I didn't realize that that wasn't a convention high score, that was the developer's own high score. I was playing on the developer's own iPad, and I clobbered his score with something like 6400 to his 5500. The developer wasn't at the booth at the moment, but his roommate was standing guard, and he was freaking out with every ridiculous word I made (I somehow pulled out VOLITION for about 500 points in one turn). In a really weird schadenfreude-istic way, this was a major highlight to my Sunday afternoon.

12. Of Assassins and Men
I didn't do too much with the bigger label games, but I did find myself waiting a half hour to see a demo video of Assassin's Creed 3. We were ushered into a small theatre where we sat on wooden crates and were asked to put our cameras away. To which I genuinely ask, why? You've already produced a video for the purposes of showing the general public what's going on with your game, and you've certainly not made us sign waivers that prevent us from telling anyone else about what we've seen. Particularly retrospectively, some of the things they were showing in this movie were features that would make for fantastic selling points for the game, why would they want to keep them faux-hidden like that? Isn't the point of publicity to make things public?

That all having been said, here are some points I recall from watching the movie.
  • The clip opens with the protagonist riding to a battlefield on a horse. I almost burst out laughing, and we were hardly twenty seconds into the movie.
  • The missions give you more options for play, for example, a "stealth" route and an "action" route, depending on how you like to play the game. Nice touch, though I'd bet they'd always make one option or the other the "full synchronization" option, meaning completionists probably won't have the liberty this decision implies.
  • The protagonist (note I'm trying to dodge recalling his name... Connor Somethingorrather is at least his English name, never mind his actual Native American name) reacts more to environment events (such as a cannonball kicking up dirt right next to him). Make of this information what you will.
  • More MOTWYW information: Troops stay in lines/blocks/clusters like they did in the war, you auto-crouch when hiding in tall grass, and you seem to have allies and enemies on both sides of the war, for various Assassin/Templar reasons.
  • They made a big deal about the trees in this game. Unlike previous games where you have a lot of architecture to play around with, it was implied that you'll be spending a lot of time on battlefields and other naturey places. They talked about the challenges of making trees not just look like random Ts for you to jump around on, and how you can "more intuitively" walk from branch to branch of a tree by hugging the trunk. That's all well and good, but the killer for the whole deal for me came near the end of the tree speech, when a few rogue leaves blocked the camera view for a moment, just as they had with every freaking game before this. They just don't learn, do they?
  • Weapons, then. Yes, you've still got the famous double-blade, but there's more emphasis put on a period-appropriate tomahawk. Also, a demonstration of the rope-dart, which is a dart on a rope. Brilliant. More brilliantly, you can spear someone from a tree, then lower yourself down elevator-style to the ground level (pulling your enemy's corpse up to branch-level). A bit of comic relief came from this bit, when the developer paused the video here to talk about the upcoming fight sequence, then adding on at the end, "Also, that guy's feet are still dangling there. We liked that part."
  • The big assassination finale happens right as the screen fades to white, but I'm sure it's just like every other assassination we've seen so far, where the protagonist and the victim have a long chat on the ground before the protagonist does his "In pace resquiat" bit and tenderly caresses his prey... or was I just imagining that bit? Don't judge me.
And then I left the theatre and I got a free inflatable tomahawk.

13. Blitzkrieg Bop
One mainstream thing I'm looking forward to is Rock Band Blitz. It'll apparently be released first for XBLA (if not elsewhere eventually), and it plays like a single-player redux of the Rock Band games. You've got five or so tracks to play, each representing a different instrument/part of the song. As you switch to that track, your performance is reflected in how well/poorly that bit of the music plays in the background. You have the freedom to switch tracks at any time, but you can only get a high score by leveling up all of the tracks equally. You can't fail a song, you just score less. To be honest, the whole thing feels way more casual in a very PopCap sort of way (complete with the glitzy "Clear" screen at the end of each song), and I'm perfectly fine with that.

That's all swell and good, but here's the weird bit: Each track only has two notes to play. It's just left or right, and very rarely deviating from a pattern that just seems to alternate L/R/L/R along with the rhythm of the music. Having experienced far fiercer games like Sequence, this is a bit of a letdown, but I can understand how having more buttons could be a bit daunting for the target audience this game is probably targeted at. I'm still cool with it though, and I'm looking forward to this game being available.

14. I'm Pretty Good at Pokerface on Easy
Speaking of Harmonix (oh, I guess we were speaking of Harmonix?), there was a nice huge stage with two side-by-side games of Dance Central 2 going on. People were lining up in pairs to play with friends, and I stood by and watched a bit. I've not tackled too much of Dance Central, but I'm familiar with how the game works. For each song, there are three difficulty levels, and you can choose to "break it down" and learn each of the steps in the song one by one before going into "performance mode". As I watched people play, I assumed there were going to be some horrible performances mixed in with the brilliant players.

That, I found out, was incredibly false. Everyone that I saw hop up on that stage came to freaking perform. Always the hardest difficulty, always straight to performance mode. And they did crazy well. (Side note: You've not seen how amazing this game can be until you've seen a TF2 Medic dancing his heart out.) It was at this point that I had a somewhat sad revelation about Dance Central. I always imagined Dance Central would be a fun party game that just about anyone can jump right into and play along, like at a party. This is extremely not true. In fact, it falls into that class of game where you have to work your butt off to not only unlock later parts of the game, but you have to devote large portions of your time to memorizing the game to perfection (as in, on one playthrough I saw, the commands actually disappeared for half the song). It's right back to Guitar Hero and Super Smash Brothers, where to access more content, you have to be good, but once you're too good, no one wants to play with you because you'll just beat them. I'm not sure I'm comfortable playing a game like that. Granted, I've lent my Kinect to a friend, so I won't even see the game for a while, but seeing these people performing like that really put a huge damper on the game for me.

15. Oh, What Was That One Thing, With the Colors and the Beams and the...
I'm blanking here, but there was another cool game I liked. It was one where you played a ship flying through a tube with colored blocks along the way. You would grab a block of one color, then another block of the same color, which would propel you through the tube faster. And you'd keep making pairs to pull yourself through the level, and try to pass through the auras surrounding the blocks without actually hitting the blocks... I think it was called Dyad? I'm not sure. But it looked cool.

16. Kids in the Hall
It was Saturday night, and I was looking for something to do. I went up to the second floor of the convention center, turned the corner, and walked into someone rolling on the ground. Little did I know that I stepped into a game called Ninja.

As I quickly learned, Ninja is played with a group of people starting out in a circle. On the leader's count, everyone strikes their favorite ninja pose (or just strike any old pose), and going in clockwise order around the order (and staying in that order, even after the circle breaks apart), each person takes a turn making one fluid motion to try to tag another person's hand with their own. (The phrase "one fluid motion" is a bit vague, but when you start to play, you can quickly figure out what's one motion and what's not.) If you miss or if you don't attack, you have to hold your stance until the next turn, unless if you're being attacked; then, you're allowed one fluid motion to take a defensive position, using the same rules as above.

I played a few rounds of this game and had a ton of fun. (In the video above, I'm just off the camera in the black shirt.) After many failed dives to attack opponents (one of which resulting in a pretty nasty rugburn that's still healing), I ended up winning the last game I played that night before I had to leave to catch the trains back to the hotel. It just goes to show that among all the organized awesomeness, these cool little impromptu games can pop up and be just as entertaining.

17. Another Reason to Hate the Sessions
I forgot to mention this before: Before any session began, there was always a separate queueing room where you had to line up to enter the session. Getting there early sometimes guaranteed you a decent seat, or it might screw you over further depending on how they filled the hall in. It really sucked, since it took away from time you could've been doing something else. It was a necessary evil though, considering how many people attended some sessions.

18. James Portnow: The Man, The Myth, The Legend (in no particular order)
Right, so this particular story takes a long time to tell. To set this up, here's some pertinent information: Extra Credits is a video lecture series of sorts started by/starring Daniel Floyd, written by James Portnow, and with artwork by Allison Theus. In it, all sorts of topics relating to games, the gaming industry, and gaming culture are discussed. Seriously, go watch all eighty-some episodes now. You won't regret it. I can't remember if it was one or two years ago now, but Allison had to have some major shoulder surgery done, but her insurance wouldn't cover the operation. Considering her main profession is art, this was a really big thing. The Extra Credits crew decided to set up a RocketHub fundraiser to take donations to support Allison's surgery. The initial goal of the fundraiser was $15,000 in 60 days. I'm making up numbers here, but by the end of the first day, they had something like over $60,000 in donations.

Me with James PortnowOn Friday, I was walking around on the exhibition hall floor when out of nowhere, James Portnow came up to me, said, "Thank you!" and hugged me. I didn't realize it until after the fact, but James apparently spotted the Extra Credits t-shirt I was wearing, which was a gift for donors to Allison's surgery fund. After we exchanged a few quick words, I got my picture taken with him, and we both continued on our way. The more I think about it, the entire episode, with him (the celebrity) randomly walking up and hugging me (the civvy), should have been far more awkward than it was, but instead it was really awesome.

Right after this, I scurried out of the expo hall and hopped on my netbook to share the photo with the JIG editors just to make them jealous (because I'm a horrible person). I'm not sure how it happened, but from the short discussion we had, I decided I would try to get an interview with the Extra Credits crew for the site. (Note that this happened before I had my not-games-but-broadcasting revelation.) I knew that I could see Daniel, James, and Allison at the Extra Credits session later that night, so I arrived 40 minutes early for the session. (It wasn't nearly early enough.)

Sadly, neither Daniel nor Allison could make it to PAX due to varying work circumstances, so the panel was just James until he pulled up a few other random developers he spotted in the audience to help him field questions. (Also: this happened.) After the panel proper ended, James stuck around in the hallway for a long time taking more questions and autographing random objects for people. I waited patiently for my chance to ask him if he could spare ten minutes at some point in time for an interview for the site. At the very least, I knew that James was familiar with Jay is Games as he and Daniel had mentioned it as a good review site in a live Q&A stream they did once. The crowd eventually whittled down to about ten people, and I thought I was going to get to ask him for the interview time, but he said he could only take one more question before he had to go. Not wanting to lose the opportunity, I quickly pulled out the notebook in my pocket and scrawled out a quick note. "Are you available for 10-20 minutes tomorrow to do a short interview for" I listed JIG's Twitter handle, my Twitter handle, and my cell phone number. As he started to pull away to his next gig, I slipped the note to him and told him to respond at his leisure. And that was the end of my Friday at PAX East.

Among all the interviews I was doing with the Indie Megabooth folks, I kept checking my cell phone to see if I had gotten any sort of reply from James (or a forwarded reply from the JIG editors, who controlled the JIG Twitter). Nothing. At around 3 o'clock or so, I left the exhibition hall to hop in the staging queue for a session I wanted to attend (at 4 o'clock... I finally learned my lesson with those stupid queues). To pass the time, I decided to check my email and Twitter in the queue. I got no response, but I spotted another tweet from James saying he'd be at the Digipen Institute booth from 4 to 4:30. Dang. So there it was, possibly my last chance to talk with him about an interview. I ended up leaving the queue and waiting at the booth for James to show up, with my netbook of questions, tripod, and camera at the ready. He showed up, he answered questions, he signed more things, and then he was on his way again, and I still didn't have any interview lined up.

But this time, I wasn't going to let him off as easily. As he and a couple other people (at least one of whom I'm assuming was either a girlfriend or spouse, I'm not sure) made their way through the exhibition hall toward the front exit, I followed closely behind, trying to pack away my gear as I walked, while still trying to keep James in my sights. Either James was really good at ignoring me or he genuinely didn't see this bumbling idiot following him with crazy amounts of gear in hand. It wasn't until he reached the front door of the convention center that I decided to interrupt him and ask him if he had any time for the interview. To my surprise, he not only remembered me from the night before, but he still had the note I handed him in his jacket pocket. He confirmed that it was my contact information, and he said he'd send me a message later that night. No specific time, but he said he'd get a hold of me.

And for the time being, that was that. I finally sort of got what I wanted, and I was sort of satisfied with that. I stopped in to catch the tail end of the session I wanted to see, then later found myself lying on the floor of the convention center, with my netbook and camera batteries charging on the floor behind me. Honestly, it was nice to just lie down and relax for a bit. I ate my lunch, which was the Pop-Tarts I had stuck in my pocket back in the hotel room, at seven o'clock. By the way, this was my normal dietary habit for the weekend. I ate the free breakfast at the hotel room in the morning, then didn't eat anything until the Pop-Tarts around 7, then a midnight snack back at the Ninety Nine before I went to bed.

Around 8, I found myself wandering around the convention center and stumbled upon the Ninja game. (Isn't it cool how all these stories are coming together now?) I played a few rounds with everyone, scraped up my leg with the rugburn, etc. All of a sudden, around 9, I saw James and his undisclosed female acquaintance coming around the corner. I immediately left the Ninja circle, grabbed my bags, and gave chase. Down the hallway, I finally caught up with James once again.

And I got the interview.

I should add that before I started recording, he asked me if I had a business card he could have for further contact. I didn't have any business cards. That was probably my biggest regret from the trip, not having business cards. A lot of the folks I interviewed at the Indie Megabooth asked if I had business cards so they could keep in touch as well. But I didn't have any business cards. But I had ten resumes! (See, it's all coming together now!) So I gave James a resume, and he stuck it inside his jacket, just like with the note. And... well, that portion of the anecdote sorta falls flat right there, but it was cool that I was networking in a small way.

Also, I asked James another question that didn't make the above cut. On a personal note, I asked him if he saw much of a calling for games outside of video games, for example, games on television or radio or movies. He said yes, there's tremendous opportunities for games elsewhere in society, and that we've got to potential to make them happen anywhere, anytime. He even referenced the game of Ninja he passed by in the hallway as an example. Games are such an integral part of our culture that we're bound to find games elsewhere.

This interview experience with James confirmed a few things within my mind. One, I've really got to pursue a job in the broadcasting field a little more fiercely. Two, via that same highway, it's still entirely possible to get a job working with games. Perhaps not video games per se, but games in other media. Three, I am one creepy man. Seriously, I stalked a guy around for the better portion of a day? That's just plain not right. Granted, it was for the sake of journalism, but still, that do-anything-for-the-story attitude has got to mean something's wrong with me. Maybe I'll end up writing for tabloids. (I really hope I don't end up writing for tabloids.)

19. Cooling Down
But what of that Saturday session I missed to try to schedule the interview with James? That session was the "Pitch Your Game Idea" session. Again, I don't know what all went on in the session since I came in for only the last ten minutes or so of it, but I was a bit irritated I didn't get to try my hand at pitching a game idea. Nonetheless, I stuck around afterward and managed to get a word in with one of the judges, Gordon Bellamy, one of the big names at the International Game Developers Association. However, I didn't ask him about games. I said, "I really enjoyed you on Million Dollar Mind Game." He burst out laughing, then fake crying, then we had a great little chat about game shows and we geeked out a bit and it was all sorts of awesome. He gave me his business card and asked for mine, which I didn't have (SEE?). I should've grabbed a picture with him. Dang. Not sure why I didn't, really.

20. Okay, But Seriously, Would You Do It Again? I guess I ducked this question earlier, so now I should really come back and give a proper answer. Would I do PAX East again? Or PAX Prime out in Seattle? My answer is yes, but I'd have to be approaching it very differently from how I did this time. I'd love to go strictly as a press person and interview as many developers as I could. I'd love to go as an exhibitor or panelist with something fantastic on my resume to talk about. I'm not sure I'd enjoy going as a straight observer again, but I wouldn't speak ill of it for anyone else who would want to go. PAX East was a fantastic experience, and I'll cherish the memories of the mysteriously non-awkward hug, the fiercest rugburn I ever received, and the motivation I needed to write a puzzle book.

Oh, I'm working on writing a puzzle book. That was also a thing that happened.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fez, Part 2

For reasons I'm not entirely sure of, I'm putting this in a separate post. I've almost completely finished Fez, though I'm still a bit shy of the ending for reasons that I'll explain later. I feel that I needed to write some sort of follow-up post to my previous entry, in which I pretty much ripped Fez to shreds. The post was incredibly unfair, as I based most of my opinions on my tired, unpleasant experience with the first ending in the game. If I had been truly professional about the experience, I would have played the game through to the end in order to take in the full meaning of not only that ending, but the post-game that followed. For that, I apologize for my horrible reporting the first time around.

Note that I'm not wholly redacting my first post though. Certain elements of my opinion still stand. The game is based on a mechanic that, between the time of announcement and release, has been duplicated by other games, and isn't used to the extent that it probably could have been used here. I was asked by a friend if my experience would have been changed if there weren't a five-year waiting period between announcement and release. I responded that the mechanic, no matter how you slice it, still gets old quickly, but without the time for copycats to come along and steal my attention, it might've held my interest for a little bit longer.

What's changed between my first posting and now? I have since chosen that "New Game +" mode, and I'm satisfied to note that it's a continuation of the first game that happens to start very similarly to the opening scenes the first time you play, but with a certain extra element given to your character allowing new puzzles to be unlocked (I'm trying to avoid spoilers this time). Those spoilers held my interest for a while, but eventually you realize that there are only so many new puzzles added; they're just repeated several times in different ways or places. For example (and I don't think this is too much of a spoiler), on one island with a clock tower, there are four bonus cubes that can be unlocked, allegedly on the schedule with one appearing once every minute, one once every hour, one once every day, and one appearing once every week. That's what I'm stuck on now. I have about two more days to wait to grab that last cube, that final cube that will let me finally finish the game with a proper ending. So yes, there's also an element of frustration that comes with some of the puzzles' designs.

So where does that leave me? I'm going to stick by the opinion I posted last time, and that's that you should try the demo and see how you feel about the game.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Ha, a tie for my shortest blog post title! Words are so much fun.

(Please note that this review will contain spoilers for the ending of Fez. I'll give another warning later when I hit the spoilers.)

Fez, that long-awaited perspective-based puzzle platformer, has finally hit XBLA for 800MSP ($10). You play as Gomez, a man who lives in a flat world with lots of squares until plotline plotline plotline and suddenly everything has depth. By rotating the world 90 degrees at a time, you can line up platforms to reach new places and collect cube fragments to unlock new worlds.

On the whole, it's an interesting mechanic, but it's not new. Or at least, it's not new anymore. Fez was first announced in 2007, and in the years that have passed, other games have come along that used the same rotating-perspective gameplay (I reviewed one for JIG here). When I heard that Fez was finally going to be released, I reacted with cautious joy, since I knew this game had to be absolutely amazing in order to live up to all the hype it received over the years. I started to play the game, and it already felt like the magic of this wonderful new mechanic was already gone.

Normally, a game like this would already be dead in the water for me, but despite the puzzle of jumping from one platform to another then rotating and doing it all over again having no novelty, I found a puzzle simply in the navigation system of the game. Each section of the world is connected via doorways in a larger three-dimensional meta-map, which baffled me at first. Lines seemed to connect one place to another like a flowchart made of a bowl of spaghetti. Somehow, the game around the mechanic, rather than the mechanic in the game, was more entertaining to me than anything else. Where solving ways to get from point A to point B was no longer interesting, navigating my way across the world was more fascinating to me.

NOTE: SPOILERS START HERE. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of stumbling on the end of the game a bit too quickly. It's safe to say that in collecting only half of the total number of cubes available in the game, what I was was the "bad ending." If ever a bad ending was to be had though, this was probably the least logical and trippiest bad ending I've ever seen. Rather than the game saying "Yay, you did it, but you didn't do enough! Go back and do some more," the ending consisted of a bizarre dance of geometric figures like a horrible old screen saver. I'm still not even sure I found the bad ending. It might've been the good ending. Or perhaps the only ending. I'm not comfortable with that.

What's probably more irritating is that in completing the game, my progress appears to have been erased. Or at the very least, I no longer have a "continue game" option on the main menu, but I now have a "start new game+" option. I've stepped away from the console for the night, but I can't help but feel that this probably means that all the hard work and exploring I did have been wiped out needlessly. (Watch this space for an edit, I'll see if I was right tomorrow.) Certainly a better ending could be ascertained by replaying the game to full completion, but I'm not sure I could be convinced to redo everything I've done before once again. SPOILERS END HERE.

My experience with Fez, though limited, has been very bipolar. First I was underwhelmed, then I was enthralled, then I was let down again. I really don't want to chalk up a third mostly-negative review in a row, but there's something about Fez, be it something in its story (or potential lack thereof), or its now-less-than-novel mechanics, or something that makes the game oddly irritating. I stress however that your mileage may vary, and encourage you to play through the demo at the very least. Please don't just go by my sleepy, jaded opinion on this one; experience the game for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Let Me Save You Ten Bucks

3SwitchedI'll keep this short and sweet: Don't buy 3SwitcheD. It's a dull knockoff of too many matching puzzles (two Bejeweled clone levels, two Atomica clone levels, two samegame clone levels) to have any originality in its gameplay. Its only remaining selling point is how you can use a webcam to track your facial movements, and the screen follows where you turn your head, except it doesn't even do this well. In the end, there's really nothing new to see here. I mean, c'mon, they couldn't have even thought of something other than gems to swap? Criminy.