Category Archives: Editorial

ARGs are Bad

I wrote this whole essay out as a rant on Discord. But it’s a rant among the category of rants I rant a lot, so after some discussion, I decided also I would post this as an essay. It’s a little unstructured, and stream-of-consciousness, because it’s a rant, but I made a little bit of effort to clean up my thoughts.

So, anyway: A bold statement.

ARGs suck.

Why do (most) ARGs suck?

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The Unintentional Tech Wisdom of Scott Shaw

There’s a B movie I’m really fond of called Guns of El Chupacabra. If you’ve hung out with me and my husband for long enough, you’re probably familiar with the movie. We discovered it through the Smithee Awards ceremony at Origins Gaming Convention, and have been sharing it with people for years. The hero of the film is played by Scott Shaw, who is also the director of the film. The heavy in the film is the late and great Robert Z’dar. As far as I am aware, we own the only DVD copy of the film signed personally by Robert Z’Dar, and I treasure it.

I’d explain the plot, but it’s not very coherent. It has the elements that you’d expect: guns, El Chupacabra. There’s a scene near the front of the film where our hero, Jack B. Quick, is buying the titular guns. He visits a gunsmith that operates out of the back of a truck. The gunsmith explains the variety of different weapon he offers, doing demonstrations that explains the merits of each individual piece. This is a standard scene in an action film, the hero gearing up sequence. But because it’s a movie filmed without a real script the smith just rambles and it goes on for way too long.

After it’s all done, Jack looks at the smith and asks: “So all these guns do the same thing? Kill people?”

This is an accidentally brilliant line and I think about it a lot.

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A Health and Weight Loss Post

I know I usually write about games and tech, so forgive me: I’m going to write about something personal (with, maybe just a little about tech).

Over the past two years I’ve started taking my health more seriously and worked hard on losing some weight. Microsoft incentivizes employees to get yearly checkups. When I got my first checkup, I realized that my weight had climbed up over 200 lbs, and I was not happy about that. I don’t necessarily think that weight loss is vital for everyone’s health, but I wanted it for myself.

As of this writing I’ve lost about 50 pounds over the last two years. It’s been a gradual process. Last weekend I went out shopping, and bought some clothes that actually fit me. So this week, when I went out to see friends, the difference was more noticeable. People who haven’t seen me in a while always remark that I look very different. That’s a good feeling, but still a mixed feeling. I feel like I still have a long way to go. I will talk about my process and journey with enthusiasm to anyone who asks, so I figured I’d go ahead and put it in writing to get some of those feelings out in a more organized way.

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Affordances in High Fidelity Environments or Why I Liked Tomb Raider Better Than Uncharted

I wrote a review of Rise of the Tomb Raider for

In the process, I went back and read my Uncharted review. I played Uncharted really late, and I actually didn’t much like the first Uncharted when I played it. On the other hand, I liked the Tomb Raider reboot and its sequel quite a bit. This is despite the fact that, as I mention in my review, they use more or less the same game format as the first Uncharted. So what’s different? I spend a quick paragraph on it in the review but I want to examine in a more rambling fashion this idea of environmental affordance. I think it’s an important component of modern game environment design.

I’m one of the rare gamers that has written some stuff critical of Final Fantasy VII. Just this week I read this article about the remake trailers, written by Brendan Keogh . I think it’s interesting that he talks about how FFVII “leans into its technical limitations” because I’ve always found the art direction in FFVII uneven for this very reason. Sometimes the environments were so high fidelity in dungeons compared to my weird little block character that it wasn’t even clear where I was able to walk. Fortunately, the designers of the game knew this, and allowed an optional waypoint graphic to appear when needed. This was a trend-setter for many years to come.

In the modern days, we have “Detective Mode.” This is most famous from the Rocksteady Batman games, and in the first game, Arkham Asylum, it’s so useful that it’s basically pointless to even turn it off. Tomb Raider has a similar vision mode called Survival Instincts. It’s balanced by the fact that the player can’t leave it on while in motion and it only flickers up for a brief time. That is, unless you disagree that it is balanced at all. I’ve seen some people such as Andrew Reiner here write that the mode makes the game a bit too easy.


Tomb Raider/Rise of the Tomb Raider do another thing that’s good, though, and make objects in the environment that  can be interacted with very similar in appearance. Any tree in Rise of the Tomb Raider that I can climb looks like every other climbable tree, with a flat bit of exposed wood under the bark and some obviously stripped branches. Rock walls suitable for using the climbing axe all have the same pocky-looking bump map. And most ledges Lara can hang from have a slight white highlight on the top edge, usually a streak of paint, though sometimes it’s just a patch of snow or a trick of the light. This may not be realistic, but I don’t care. It’s a price I’m willing to pay for it being really obvious what I can and can’t interact with in the environment. This part of the game’s texturing is consistent enough that I rarely needed the Survival Instincts to figure out a traversal path, though it was useful occasionally, especially if the way forward wasn’t immediately clear.

Consistent assets help out with affordances as well. There are a few traversal methods later in the game that require objects. If there’s a place I can axe-grapple and swing, the hook that I need to hang from always looks very distinct. The weights and cranks used for puzzle solving are always similar-looking assets as well. This is probably convenient for the developers in that they can re-use the same environment assets from time to time, but it’s also incredibly useful for gamers in that an axe crank always looks like an axe crank. This way I can get to figuring out how to solve the puzzle, instead of just milling around trying to figure out which part of the puzzle is the interactive part.


These two factors combined make me wonder how the game would play without the Survival Instinct vision. But overall I found the vision mode just too useful to live without, especially when finding collectables or enemies in the environment. I think overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider would be a terrific game to study for a basic primer in how to make environments read clearly even when they’re dense with information. This kind of stuff means the difference between a game I enjoy, versus a game that makes me want to tear my hair out in frustration.

M-Rated Games and Parents

Grand Theft Auto V is coming out for PC.

Do you have kids? Above say… ten years old, or so.

There is a good chance that if your kids are interested in gaming at all, they’re interested in Grand Theft Auto.

I went to a middle school computer club last week and talked with a bunch of brilliant kids about how games are made. At the start of a school lecture, I like to show pictures from different games and ask if the kids play or know of those games. I start out really easy, and work my way to more obscure indie stuff. Continue reading


Yesterday I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Primarily, we were there to see the David Lynch exhibition, because David Lynch is great. While we were there, though, we browsed the entire gallery. I always found history dry in school. But in a museum, I love looking at history, partially because it’s so interesting to see what things were different in the past, and what things remain the same.

In a salon-style gallery in the Academy, this picture is hanging in a prominent corner.


This is a painting by John Vanderlyn, depicting the mythological figure Ariadne. The full title of the picture is Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos. It was completed in 1814, so this is its 200th anniversary year.

You may recognize the name Ariadne from its use in the move Inception. Ariadne is associated with the classic labyrinth story. In the myth, Ariadne fell in love with the hero Theseus, and helped him to escape from the minotaur’s labyrinth. This picture is supposed to depict the moment where, after eloping with Theseus, Ariadne woke up to find that the man she thought she loved had slipped out in the night and abandoned her.

You can click on the picture above to enlarge the painting, and there’s another image of this painting here in this long internet gallery of Ariadne paintings. She’s a fairly popular subject! She’s kind of a cool character because she was a problem-solver, but artists did seem interested in depicting this sad moment in her story.  In some versions of the story she’s then discovered by the God Dionysis, who falls in love with her and ends up marrying her. Being the wife of the goddess of wine doesn’t seem like a bad deal at all. I think it would be super chill to get a bottle of Merlot with Ariadne and talk about adventure games.

But the thing that really struck me about this piece is this.

An info screen in the gallery explained that when this painting was initially hung, it was controversial. Some concerned women wrote a letter to the gallery about some pictures that they found too offensive, the Ariadne among them. I took a picture of the info screen containing the text of the letter.


I think it’s legible when enlarged, even with my reflection on the glass. In case it isn’t for you, it reads:

Philadelphia, February, 1891

While thanking you for the many beautiful pictures with which you have decked the walls of the Academy, we desire, in the name of the womanhood of Philadelphia, and as voicing the expressed sentiments of very many, — several of whom are stockholders in the Academy, — respectfully to protest against the flagrant indelicacy of many of the pictures now on exhibition.

It is the general sentiment, that never before in Philadelphia has modesty been so ruthlessly assailed. As Christian women, as modest women, we feel this to be an offence to our womanhood, an attack on the delicacy of our daughters and the morality of our sons.

While in thus expressing ourselves, we do not mean to impugn the motives of those who admitted these pictures, yet we are convinced that the claims of ‘Art,’ often so loftily insisted on, should never take precedence of the higher aims of public propriety and morality, the interests of which would be greatly subserved by excluding from public view such pictures as […] the ‘Ariadne’ of the Permanent Exhibition.

To emphasize this protest we would add, that one of the ladies endorsing it, whose relatives and friends have contributed a number of beautiful pictures to the Exhibition writes: ‘I am very glad to sign this paper; I only hope it may accomplish its object; I hate these pictures with a bitter hatred.’


[Fourteen names]
Representing, by actual count, over five hundred (500) of the Christian women of Philadelphia

I thought that this was incredibly interesting.


Commonalities of the MegaHit Mobile Apps

A lot of buzz hit the internet this week about Flappy Bird, a recent mobile phone app to hit something resembling megahit status in just a few weeks. I’ve gotten some questions recently about what, in my opinion, can cause a mobile app to be a success. Let me preface by saying this is pure analysis, looking at the form factors in common with the mega hit apps on mobile phone. This isn’t me working from experience of developing a megahit, or I’d probably be a lot more humble and a lot less analytical. (Also, I’d be in the Bahamas.)

First, I want to define what I mean by “megahit.” Lots of apps are really successful, but in this case I’m talking about apps that are such big hits that they are unavoidable. They’re not just a game that a gamer is playing, but a game your neighbor is playing. Some examples of apps that have megahit status in my mind: Angry Birds, Tiny Tower, Draw Something, Flappy Bird, and Candy Crush Saga. A lot of people roll their eyes at some of these games, but their status as successes isn’t deniable.

So what factors do successful games have in common? From most, to somewhat lesser in importance:

1. Luck
2. Iteration
3. Polish
4. Friendliness

If I were to actually draw a chart showing the actual level of importance here, Luck would be the biggest factor times ten times a hundred. If I were to devote words to how important Luck is, it would be the largest part of this article too. But luck is what it is, and it’s not a factor that any one person has much control over.

There’s really only one way to increase your luck, and that’s with the Iteration part.

If you were buying a ticket for a raffle (or, the lottery), you’d have a better chance of winning the raffle if you bought more than one ticket. Likewise, people who make megahit apps tend to make a lot of apps. Rovio Mobile had dozens of less-interesting games before hitting on Angry Birds. Flappy Bird‘s creator has several other titles. Draw Something may seem like it came out of nowhere, but it was a mobile iteration on Draw My Thing, a game from 2008 that was part of OMGPop’s huge library.

If your success does amount to a roll of the dice, you’re better off, statistically, rolling as many dice as you can. But iteration also adds another factor: the more games you make, the better you get at making games.

I’ve seen lots of people get great success with their first released indy game. But this seems less frequent in mobile, at least not without a proven track record of already developing hits for other platforms, or a pre-existing brand name backing the app. You’re just better off making a lot of games.

Polish is an interesting factor because Flappy Bird is a hit, but doesn’t seem like it’s polished in a traditional sense. In many ways it looks rather crude.

But it really isn’t, at least, not in the ways that are important, which is basic attractiveness and “readability.” The average person doesn’t really have a firm grasp of framerates or things that hardcore gamers debate a lot about. They just care if the game looks “finished” and appealing. There’s a lot of factors that go into readability and appeal: too many for this post. I want to talk later about color theory and why it’s really important for mobile apps. For now let me just say that Flappy Bird while it looks weird, does not look unpleasant, and that’s really important.

Yeah, a lot of people don’t like that the pipes are the same exact shape as the ones from Mario. I won’t go into whether or not they are plagiarized. But as a borrowed design, it’s one that at least is very readable and makes its boundaries very clear to the player. The hard-edged shape and bold outlines of the pipes mean that when you lose the game, you always feel that it’s in some way your fault.

Friendliess is a factor that’s closely related to polish. Generally speaking people are more likely to download apps that look like they’re, well, fun, and less likely to click on stuff that seems like it might be grim. People often associate grimmer aesthetics with the game being too hard or some kind of time sink.

Note that it doesn’t actually matter if the game is a hard time sink. Flappy Bird is really hard and is a time sink. Candy Crush Saga is hard, unfair, and a time sink. But neither of these games are oppressive in how they present this. In fact it’s totally OK to be cruel in your game design, and it seems like the combination of cute and cruel works especially well. But it is important the game appear approachable, and simple to understand controls are a big factor as well. Design with the touchscreen in mind, instead of a game that relies on floating joypads to operate, and the game will be better and more likely to be played.

I realize I really didn’t talk about creativity or originality at all. Sorry. It’s entirely possible to create a game that is very original and also a hit. It’s also possible to put a new layer of polish on mechanics that are already out there, re-theme it a little bit, and still have a tremendous hit…

Thoughts? Any obvious factors I’m missing? I know the fact that it’s more important to be iterative than creative doesn’t always thrill people, but it seems like the facts of life in mobile.

On Gone Home

I was excited about Gone Home, the environmental exploration game, when I heard about the premise, and since it’s a fairly short game that isn’t challenging in the traditional sense, I was able to block out some time to play it. It seems there are a lot of blog entries going up about this game this weekend, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Critical Distance roundup for it or something come next week.

My thoughts on it turned out to be different from most other thoughts I’ve read. So I feel like it’s worthy to weigh in. I really liked the game but it wasn’t perfect for me either. For one thing, it ran a bit slowly on my older laptop, which is unfortunately the primary machine I’m using for gaming right now due to a variety of moving-related factors. So it was a bit of a slideshow which hurt the impact.

Any other comments will have to be mired in spoiler territory, but before I go into that, I will say it got the 90s-teenager-nostalgia just right for me. I was also a teenager in the 90s and though our house wasn’t the mansion depicted in Gone Home, there were a lot of similarities, too – the wallpaper, the unfinished basement, the cheap blue nail polish, the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, the Oujia board tucked in a back closet. Every once in a while in the game there was a moment that reminded me of something from being a teen in the most obvious and non-obvious way. And that was very touching and a big part of the value of the experience.

Also, I am totally on board with Christmas Duck being the new Companion Cube, because having a house is all about those weird Christmas decorations that don’t make sense. Christmas Duck plushies should be a thing. Just saying. Good ol’ Christmas Duck.

Spoiler jump starts now:

So another big reason I wasn’t totally blown away by Gone Home, even though I enjoyed the game, was that I called the ending about five minutes in. I saw a note that said “don’t tell Mom and Dad what happened” and a note that said “I don’t want to hang out with Daniel anymore because he’s getting weird.” That was all right in the first little area, and I thought: this is the game that pulled out of PAX because it has LGBT content. Okay, so the reveal at the end, I said aloud, to my husband nearby, is the sister has run off with another young lady, because she’s gay. After deciding that, I wasn’t really buying into any of the other clues the game threw out about there being ghosts or this being a murder house. Those moments were spooky, but I was pretty sure the situation was going to be something mundane, and there was enough evidence throughout (ransacked drawers and missing VCRs) to support my suspicions.

Hubby didn’t want me to be right that quickly, but it was what it was. The way the story was laid out was very neatly done, and, though the lesbian bit comes out early enough, there’s still the possibility of something like a suicide pact or something gruesome and worrisome near the end. I stood by my “run away” choice even after seeing a pentagram, because leaving a note that says “don’t let Mom and Dad find out” wouldn’t have made sense in the context of a suicide.

A few blogs have gone up already saying things like “I wanted to identify with this game, but I can’t, for X reason.” For example Anna Anthropy can’t identify because she is trans. Nick can’t identify because he didn’t grow up wealthy. Alec Meer can’t identify because he’s a man… but there is the dad character for him to identify with, and his struggles in becoming a successful writer, which is the largest “side-story” in the game.

So… I can’t entirely identify, because I’m straight

Oh, god, hold on. Okay. I’m sorry, I don’t want this to sound like whining or anything. I realize that as a straight woman I’m privileged. And I am the sort of straight woman that’s sex-positive and sometimes enjoys sexualized depictions of other women, which if you believe in queerness as more of a scale thing, then I don’t tip the needle all the way on the straight side. But I don’t really consider that a part of an identity that I have, and every sort of awakening or watershed moment that I had has been from the straight point of view.

And it’s very hard to express this, but it feels like video games kind of sidestepped straight women? Question mark because I’m not saying this in an authoritative way, but more in a, am I the only one who feels this way, way? That’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write a little about Everlove when I heard about it. It’s solely about a straight woman having sex with men. How rare is that? It’s not completely rare, no, but it’s pretty rare.

I was thinking about Remember Me, and the backlash against it starring not just a woman, but a straight woman. That would be awkward because you can’t make the player “kiss another dude” in the game (presuming that the player is a dude, naturally). And I was thinking about how in most early games, when there was a romance to play out, I did it as a man picking up women, because that was what there was to do. And I was thinking about how in a lot of games there’s a woman-on-woman relationship, because designers put that woman in the game as a love interest for a man, so why not go ahead and open that up for both genders? So it took until the second Mass Effect game for a female character to have more than one male romance option, for example.

I get that this sucked even worse for gay men, who got nothing in the first Mass Effect game at all. I’m not saying it’s bad that there’s homosexual options in games or that games are increasingly inclusive across-the-board. I’m just saying that sometimes it feels like, in a world where at first women at all were a bit of an afterthought, in a world where the trappings of “the feminine” are already frequently dismissed, it feels like straight women haven’t quite carved a niche.

As a thought experiment I wonder what Gone Home would’ve been like if it were a straight-girl story. It could’ve gone the same way, generally: maybe Sam’s potential boyfriend still has to choose between her and ROTC; maybe they still have to sneak around to have sex; maybe there’s some other thing keeping them apart, like he’s a different race or he’s lower-class and the Greenbrier parents just don’t approve. Maybe she writes the same sort of little diaries about sexual confusion, and maybe she comes to the conclusion she really likes this guy, and they’re going to run off together.

It just doesn’t feel as important somehow, but it would be no less real, right? But it would feel kind of less weighty. And I think the same exact writing voice for Sam might’ve come across as a ditzy and frivolous giiiiirl if she just had a crush on a boy. It’d be less triumph and more… Twilight.

And I’m thinking about the mother character in Gone Home and I’m realizing that, aside from Katie, who is just an avatar, Jan, the mother, is the most under-written character. Most of her story is about how she’s away from home often, so it makes sense we hear less of her, and maybe I missed a scrap or two of her story in all the piles. But she hasn’t seen a lot of evaluation in the same way that Terry’s side-story has seen.

We do know that Jan is a Christian and she reads the Bible and, hey, it’s nice to see a straight, Christian woman in a video game who isn’t portrayed in an entirely demonized fashion. She’s sympathetic even if she’s still a bit of the villain to Sam’s story. There’s been so much Dad-based content in games, lately, and there hasn’t been so much a corresponding increase in “Mom” content, so it’s nice to see a mom at all.

Yet Jan’s not the most interesting character in the game. I think Sam is the most interesting character in Gone Home, and that’s by design I’m sure. I like reading her writing as it develops and hearing her point of view and I empathize with her often throughout. I want to learn more about Katie, because I was the oldest sister in my household, but as the avatar she’s never given too much to say.

I’m happy to have a game about a family and a game that’s about sisters growing up. Gone Home works very well telling the story that it tells. And ultimately I think the success of Gone Home isn’t so much what the story is as how it’s told in the environment design. (Which is a little too on-the-nose sometimes, but games are getting there.)

Just imagine there’s a game like this, but it’s about the sexual awakening of a straight teenage girl falling in love with a boy. Do you hate her? Is she airheaded? Imagine there’s a game like this but it’s about the concerns of the mother as she struggles to hold her family together. Is she boring? Is she selfish?