Hearthstone and Sucesses in Fatherhood

Parenthood. Ain’t it something? I am 6.5 years into my parenting venture now. Never before have I valued quiet as feverishly as I do now, nor have I before been aware how frustration can reach such a severity that vision will actually blur. When I was a young man I’d giggle whenever Homer Simpson would grab Bart by the throat: “Why you little…” – tee hee, such a silly cartoon. I can now attest that those feelings are real. So, so very real. But, this post shall not be a sounding board for the ills and hardships of parenting. It shall instead be one of gratitude and praise to a collective experience I share with my 6.5 year old.

Mitchell and I play Hearthstone. We play Hearthstone a lot. We’ll pull up chairs and play it on the desktop. We’ll crowd around on the floor and play it on the iPad. We may play separately. We may play together, tag-teaming against our foes. One may play while the other spectates, then we’ll switch seats. Sometimes we quibble about what card to play next. He gets upset when he loses a match. He is a sore loser, a trait he gets from his old man. But, for a kid who is only weeks away from entering the first grade he sure can hold his own in a given match.

Yes, Hearthstone has been a terrific learning tool for Mitchell. I see him calculating basic arithmetic on his fingers, making sure he can eliminate the highest threat priority while still maintaining board presence. He is developing the skill of knowing when to strike face versus minion. His reading and vocabulary skills are honing; he now and forever knows what ‘adjacent’ means. Not only is he working on comprehension of card functions but he also devises strategies from these functions. Sometimes the strategies work. Sometimes they do not.

The game is helping him develop analytic skills along with emotional skills. I made the mistake of showing him the Concede button in the options menu. So, every so often whenever his strategic idea blows up in his face, he wants to bail on the match: “I’m gonna lose anyways!” I feel his frustration because, when I am playing, I too so often want to throw my arms up in early, bitter defeat. When Mitchell get this way I try to raise above this – above my own tendencies – and be that idyllic wise father and salve his angst, to encourage him to take another turn, draw another card, to work with the surprises and upsets that come from luck and randomness. You can’t control everything, but you can certainly choose to control what you do have.

One night a couple of weeks ago I was working as a stagehand for a local awards ceremony. It was overall going to be an easy gig because these types of programs practically run themselves. Knowing this beforehand I brought the iPad with the intent of situating myself in utility room, close enough that I was able to maintain a presence should I be needed but far enough away that, when the time was right, I could inconspicuously play some Hearthstone. The program began a couple minutes late at 7:05 PM. I performed my light responsibilities during the early parts of the program and then retreated to the utility room. At 7:30PM tapped the Hearthstone app. I was few turns into the match when Battlenet disconnected me and presented this message, “This Battle.net account just logged into Hearthstone from another device. This client was disconnected because only one connection is supported at a time.” I grinned from ear to ear. I looked at the clock and inferred from the given time that everybody at home had finished dinner, finished chores: Now is the leisure hour before bedtime, and Mitchell is playing himself some Hearthstone! I didn’t want to interfere. I closed out the Hearthstone app. Some twenty minutes later my wife texts me:

 

Mitchell excitedly explained

to me how he won

and all I got out of

it was 16 healths and 6

something’s. He also

just asked me to pray

he could beat somebody.

I told him we don’t do

that, but he won anyways :)

 

I gushed with pride at this. GUSHED! This text is the perfect summation and confirmation of one of my few successes in fatherhood. It also shows a work in progress. For as mind-numbingly frustrated that this little boy can make me I am glad that he and I find common ground in Hearthstone. I probably wouldn’t play it as much if it wasn’t for our collective experiences with it. The experience for me is more than just playing Hearthstone – more than just playing the same game as Mitchell, sharing it with him – but it is in standing back, keeping an attentive distance and just observing my son’s brain grow and develop in both hemispheres. I am grateful that Hearthstone can provide so much for us.

Polite Declines During the Steam Summer Sale ’14

As of Monday, 30 June 2014, 1 P.M. EST, Steam returned to its normal self, and so swiftly too. It is odd seeing the storefront as it once was, and with nary a sign of the frantic ten days of summer sales. There are no more little green discount rectangles, no more timers counting down until the next flash sale. The dust has settled. Seeing all these games without a discount tacked next to the price tag seems profane. Nonetheless business moves forward, and life moves on. While Valve retreats to prepare the world for The International so, too, do the Steam gamers retreat to their little cubbies and nuzzle up with all their new games.

I continue to do my own nuzzling, yes. I am pleased with my purchases and with my overall behavior during this sale. Indeed. I practiced discretion, deliberate purchasing, and had only a single instance of impulse buying. My wishlist was the framework for what I did and what I did not purchase. Yes, I acquired a few games that were on my wishlist and a handful of others that were not.

But there are a select few which I decided not to buy – I could have, but I didn’t. With games made available at such a heavy discount, why the devil not? The answer to this varies from game to game, and it was not because I thought the prices would go lower. Below are two of the more thoughtful lines of considerations among the group of games I decided to pass up.

EU4

 

 

 

 

 

At a 75% discount EU4 would have cost me $10.00. That’s very attractive, not to mention generous. And considering the robust number of hours that I have logged into EU3 proceeding forward to its successor only seems like a logical step. In due time, I will. But when EU4 popped up in a flash sale last week, the time was not time and I did not purchase. I attribute two factors to this decision. An admirable quality of Paradox Development Studio is their focus on community; the developer acts on suggestions made by fans. From these suggestions expansions are developed and released – Expansions that do just that: They expand and add worthwhile content and mechanics to the base games, adding new layers of strategic experimentation and implementation.

EU4 was released during August last year. Since then, two expansions have been released (with a mini-expansion soon the land). On the other hand, Crusader Kings 2, released by Paradox during February 2012, has had the benefit of time to mature and expand. To date, there are seven expansions for CK2. Of these seven I own four. Of these four I have truly burrowed to the mechanical guts of only two. I have much to do in CK2 (and the game’s concept is slowly percolating in my mind as one of the awesomest in the universe ever). To jump into EU4 – even if it is only the base game – from my standpoint would be premature. I like the idea of showing up late to the Paradox party and branching out to different expansions at my leisure and readiness. Perhaps in a year I shall be able to do so for EU4.

Transistor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let it be said that the decision to not buy this was never based on the price tag; I am totally willing to pay the twenty bucks for Transistor. I would be willing to pay more. Even at a 20-25% discount during the summer sale I still felt perplexed, like I was in a sort of quasi-ethical quandary. Why? Part of the perplexity stems from recalling my experience playing Bastion, Supergiant’s previous game, and how I loved nearly everything about it. It maintained a singular stylistic vision and the gameplay was a blast. There was something honest, almost pure, about Bastion. The game made me feel like a kid. I have all the trust in the universe that Supergiant will deliver another well-directed, focused effort.

This is why I passed on Transistor during the Summer Sale; I do not want to betray this focus of Supergiant by crowding Transistor together in my attention with all the other games I just bought. The act of buying, downloading and installing Transistor should be an event all on its own. I recall the afternoon when I had finally saved enough allowance money to buy Super Mario Bros. 3. After I bought the cartridge, I made my Dad run red lights because I was so freaking excited to get home to play it – nothing else mattered. I want to feel the same focused anticipation as Transistor slowly trickles its way from the Steam servers onto my harddrive… and perhaps get a ButtonMashing review out of it.

It’s Gonna be a Showdown: Steam Summer Sale 2014

In this way gales have their own [characteristics]. You remember them by your own feelings… some cling to you in woe-begone misery; others come back fiercely and weirdly… others, again, have catastrophic splendour; others are severe like a visitation; and one or two rise up draped and mysterious with an aspect of ominous menace. In each of them there is a characteristic point at which the whole feeling seems contained in one single moment

Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

Brothers, sisters. The Steam Summer Sale event is near – so, so very near. Its nearness can be felt, measured. Just the same as the moon causes the oceans to heave and roll, so the proximity of the Summer Sale affects us, churning about all sorts of emotions. A Steam sale is indeed a mighty thing. Each sale carries with it its own intricacies and ingredients, systems and patterns, facets and surprises. We may perhaps recall our experiences with a specific sale – how we braved or floundered – and share them with other salty dogs of the PC master race.

The universal effect of Steam sales on the community’s pathos fills me with wonder and awe. The leveling factor can and should be studied. It is a freaking phenomenon. And here we are now, en masse and anxiously awaiting for this king mother beast to drop. You and I may have different playing styles and game-type preferences, different attitudes and tendencies – These differences may create a rift, or chasm, case depending, between us during any other time of the year. But it is during this time of anticipation that you and I are not so different. I can thereby declare with certain confidence that we are experiencing a similar wash of emotions as we await this summer’s bounty.

The first is excitement. Such giddy, child-like excitement. Oh, isn’t it precious? All those little green boxes next to the title’s price tag. There are so many, and the numbers are so close to 100. Steam will even do the math for you, will strike-through the original price and shade it while the discount price gleams like a promise. Let us envision ourselves skipping and tra-la-la-ing down the digital lanes, fancy-free and grateful for this marvel, this digital mana. Add to cart. Add to cart. Add to cart. Add to cart. Purchase for myself. Purchase for myself. Purchase for myself. Purchase for myself.

But, stop! Cease this ignorant dream of economic distress. The sale has yet to come and we are already mindlessly adding to our gaming backlog. When the Summer sale dawns let us be more measured in our purchases. Yes. The second emotion we feel is resolve. This is prompted by our reminisces of certain sales’ past, as we shudder coldly at our behavior. For shame. Look at that transaction history; Look at your library backlog – What a stain on your dignity. Let us resolve to be more deliberate in our purchases this summer. How badly do you want this title, really, truly? How will this title add to the patchwork of your gaming preferences, styles, and experiences. Yes! How will this sweet, succulent, Flash Sale discounted title further define you as a gamer?

But, that involves too much thinking! The Steam sale is a cultural phenomenon, an event! Look at all those youtube videos. Scroll through /r/pcmasterrace/. I mean, why should we have to practice discretion? Look at those discounts! Soooooo many games. Part of what makes these sales so awesome is the collective (playful) despair we feel. This is one of the reasons we are PC gamers in the first place. While the console peasants claw over each other in Gamestop stores and Wal*Mart electronics departments to use their allowance money to buy used copies of last year’s major titles we delight in the delicacies of heavily-discounted games without ever having to leave our plush computer chairs. So, nuts to deliberate purchasing – I mean, WTF, man? The third emotion is tactlessness

Once you have regained some composure from that last little outburst, you take a deep, cleansing breath. Your mind may still be abuzz with aswirl of emotion but you nonethess take an objective look around. It has been six months since the winter sale. There are mysterious “Mystery Trading Cards” all of a sudden floating around the Steam Marketplace. E3 has concluded; the meta-table is clear. This week’s list of Weeklong Deals contains a mere seven titles, a trite count compared to the regular 25-ish sum. Gaming blogs and websites are fidgeting with anticipation. Yes. Forces are in motion, brothers and sisters. The fourth emotion you feel is acceptance. However you conduct yourself when the time comes, the sale is indeed coming – like, this Thursday.

And so, lastly, we shall not cower in the face of this mighty force. We shall not crumple under the weight of our own personal shopping decisions. Now is the time to celebrate the possibilities and to steel ourselves against… ourselves. May we stand on the bow, with arms thrust to either side and greet this Steam Summer Sale headon. The fifth and final emotion is exhibited below.

I’ll see you on the other side…

Weekend Gaming

Weekend Gaming posts are normally Tony’s shtick. For this weekend’s post he explained that he meant to write it last night but somehow mysteriously ended up in a couple DOTA 2 matches instead – just the same as a gambler says no more for the night but somehow mysteriously ends up cranking slots for two more hours, or the struggling chocaholic who somehow mysteriously finds his cheeks stuffed with whoppers. So this morning, while in the throes of fighting this personal demon, Tony assigned the Weekend Gaming task to me.

And well-timed, too! Should he have asked me to do this next weekend – or even tomorrow – there’s a strong chance that I would be unable to write this post as well because I somehow mysteriously have slipped ever-deeper into the realm of Dark Souls 2. I anticipated this game so much that I actually bought it on launch day (this past Tuesday), which I have never done with any other title. Several months ago there was a stir within the Dark Souls community when game co-director Yui Tanimura made mention that DS2 would be more ‘accessible’ than the first game. After seeing the buzz that his comment made he quickly issued a statement clarifying his meaning. For what it’s worth, I here now testify that ‘accessible’ does not mean easier. Not in the slightest. The same expectations on the player as the first Dark Souls are in place, perhaps even more pressing: Souls have more value (retrieve yours!); your HP is penalized the longer you play and die as a hollow; fall damage is more severe; the areas are gnarly and confusing. And yet, battered and bruised I press forward, along with so many other players.

If you have to ask, you don’t need to know.

A harder reality must be recognized. I am playing Dark Souls 2 on the PS3. And our family has only one HDTV. And my kids wanna watch stuff. And my wife would rather the kids watch stuff than me play Dark Souls 2. And these are enemies far more powerful and frightening than anything I will ever encounter in the game. So I must relinquish the TV at times. When this happens I do believe I shall resurface to join Tony and James and any other ButtonMasher in a nice, level-headed round or two of Dota. I am glad that Tony has been on a 2-month Dota kick because it has gotten me to gravitate back to the game as well. I’ve learned to take the losses along with the wins. I better understand the strategy, the items, the skills. When to use what, what to use where. Chatting with fellow ButtonMasher about the game is fun! But, more than anything, I no longer feel like I’m a slippery n00b.  Or as Major Payne once said to his squad:

MajorP

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What are you playing this weekend, turd?

On Gaming and Linguistics

While visiting London, Gamasutra contributor Leigh Alexander, American, noticed how gamers in the UK assign a different linguistic value than what she’s used to hearing to the term used to express that he or she has completed a game in its entirety. I almost said ‘beat’ the game but it looks like that expression is mainly used by us Yankees. She postulates, however briefly, about the cultural difference between ‘beat’ and the UK usage ‘finish’. So she took her thoughts to Twitter and posted some interesting replies on Gamasutra. The link below could be just the beginning of a legit anthropological linguistic study. Very cool.

Beating’ Games Around the World

Scrolling through her post brought to remembrance some recurring thoughts I had while playing Eve:Online last year. The MMO is home to over 5,000 playable star systems. A majority of the systems are named. How exactly are these names generated? Some are quite sharp and eloquent (Hakodan) while others, if sounded aloud, sound like drunken mumblings (Penirgman). Across the central cluster of New Eden you’ve got the likes of Sehmy, Keproh, Barira, Ishkad, Goni. Each name  seem to follow a loose root-and-pattern template – they do not spiral out of control, and yet, sounding some of them out can be quite the phonological workout. Being an MMO, this a fun little quirk of the EVE universe. I was on a teamspeak channel with my fleet while out on a roam, the fleet commander would call out which system to jump to, and, whoa doggies, this guy from Minnesota pronounced ‘Sasiako’ way different than I have been all along.

Ever since then I’ve had this nagging, musing wonder if someone has done some kind of phonology study across New Eden. 500,000 players from all over the world, different regions producing different phonetic practices, trekking across these 5,000 named virtual star systems. From a testing standpoint, the stage is already set: It’s a closed system with quasi-control groups and each player already has a microphone. The amount of raw data a student could collect from this would be staggering. Staggering, I tell you. From this, what could be deciphered about the Eve universe?

A Warning to the Makers of Candy Crush Saga

Two years ago, the three of us at Stoic set out to make an epic viking game: The Banner Saga. We did, and people loved it, so we’re making another one. We won’t make a viking saga without the word Saga, and we don’t appreciate anyone telling us we can’t. King.com claims they’re not attempting to prevent us from using The Banner Saga, and yet their legal opposition to our trademark filing remains. We’re humbled by the outpouring of support and honored to have others stand with us for the right to their own Saga. We just want to make great games.

The above statement was issued today by Stoic to Kotaku.com. As stated, The Banner Saga (released 14 January 2014 for PC and Mac) is being targeted by King, creator of Candy Crush Saga, the wildly successful mobile ‘freemium’ puzzle game.

Earlier this week news spread throughout the internet about King’s endeavor to protect its intellectual property by trademarking the word ‘Candy’. This action has far-reaching implications, beyond mobile games, and has caused all kinds of knee-jerk reactions from many different camps. The PR department has been scrambling ever since to mop up the slippery slop that has uncontrollably squirted out of the behinds of, ultimately, the company’s legal advisers. Just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Even so, recognizing the fallout of such foolish decision making, you’d think the decision-makers at King would tread forward but lightly so. As of yesterday, this doesn’t appear to be the case because, in a boneheaded move, now they are pushing to claim the term ‘saga’, and, in the end, are filing against Stoic’s The Banner Saga, which could force the independent developer to change the current (and any future) game’s name.

It is a common and thorny situation in gaming. Part of what makes it so interesting is that the gaming industry is charging forward with such fervor that the laws simply can’t keep up. So we have this perpetual gray area, this wild wild west of intellectual property where companies like King are seeking to stake a claim on whatever they can – Especially now in the months preceding toppling off the treacherous summit of mobile gaming. YEEEEHAWWwww!!!! Did you hear that? It’s a death rattle.

But, again, just because you can doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. Sure, King can throw the book, but what’s going to bite them in the butt is this PR mess. Earlier this week I paid little mind to those who may be affected by the ‘candy’ situation. But now the saga advances forward to PC gaming, and this hits a little closer to home. Not that I’m taking this knuckleheaded move personally, but I do believe that heavy-handed money grubbing actions like such coming from a 15-minute spectacle like King can slow the ebb and flow of innovation. Even King’s released ‘justifications’ for its actions against The Banner Saga, posted and critiqued with vehemence on so many gaming websites, are only hurting the company’s ability to not only rebound from this mess but to gain any traction for anything they do in the future, which, isn’t it funny, is exactly what they’re aiming to protect with these trademarks.

So listen here, King. And listen good:

Walk away, Son. Walk away. Even by so much as meddling with The Banner Saga you are provoking forces you will not be able to control nor recover from, no matter how many loose-bowel lawyers you’ve got standing downwind. Frankly, you were fine pursuing other glitzy mobile games but now you are poking the bear. Go out now with some semblance of dignity or your precious trademarks will be smeared with your own guts and flotsam. Don’t mess with the PC gaming community – especially the indie titles. They are the gems of what it right and true about gaming. They are the future and they will be defended with utmost voracity. You have chosen to flaunt and misuse a confusing branch of intellectual property law, one that has a proclivity to trigger adverse emotional responses. Even if the implications of your legal endeavors are not fully understood you are antagonizing an enemy whose abundance of modes and avenues will be used to swarm and pummel you from every direction, the book be damned.

The Honorable Mention of 2013

‘Tis the season! The season of lists! Lists. lists. lists. Holiday card mailing lists. Holiday to-do lists. Wish lists. Naughty lists. Nice lists. New Year’s resolution lists. Even now, as the year draws to a close we’re seeing ‘best of’ lists, ‘memorable’ lists. At that, gaming websites are posting their own 2013 lists. Many of them are console specific, although a fair number of them seem to be arbitrarily arranged. Indeed. The top slots are usually the heavy-hitters, the AAA titles, the games created by monolithic studios. While these titles certainly have their merits, for I have played a few of them, their redundancy on all these dang lists (even appearing on more than one console lists) can mean many different things. But may aim for this post is to not go there…

In fact: nuts to lists.

While I am certainly feeling retrospective, I only intend to name one title – An ‘Honorable Mention 2013′, if you will. In many award ceremonies, an honorable mention is usually treated as a side note to the ‘official’ lists of achievers; a coy pat on the back, ‘good try, sport! Here, have a plaque.’ But, to me, the honorable mention of this post achieves its success by maintaining a sure presence during the 2nd half of 2013. Despite its humble and small-time operation, this game refused to be eclipsed by so many of the games gobbling up these end-of-year lists – and yet, from what I’ve seen, finds itself on nary a one of them. Nuts to lists. Ladies and gentlemen, my Honorable Mention 2013 award goes to:hillclimbracing_headerAvailable on iOS, Android and Windows, Hill Climb Racing is a simple 2D platform game. The player drives an assortment of vehicles across an assortment of stages. Each vehicle has its own traits and each stage has its own conditions. You earn currency on each stage by collecting coins, performing feats, and breaking distance records. The currency you earn is then plugged back into upgrading the vehicles already unlocked, or unlocking new vehicles and stages. The turn is over when you either run out of gas or flip over and crack the driver’s neck; from what I’ve seen, the stages themselves do not run out.

Now that I re-read the last paragraph I am startled at how bland the game looks – insignificant, even. This observation only affirms the intangible greatness of Hill Climb Racing. It is a charming, cartoonish (and free) game that my entire family enjoys. Your scruffy little driver man, Bill Newton, will earn his way into your heart. You make do with what you’ve got, and when you earn that final stepped upgrade, or unlock a new level, it feels like an achievement. If you feel like you’re grinding for coins, turn the game off and come back to it later with an inevitable recharged enthusiasm. Enjoy the ride. Part of the appeal – besides the fantastic music track in the menu screens – is the child-like giddyness you feel when mixing and matching cars with stages. Our family discuss absurd-sounding strategies: Try driving a tank on mars; try the Formula 1 race car on the rollercoaster tracks. A fond memory I have is driving a tour bus, with substandard shocks, up a mountainside. The outcome of such a silly goose endeavor is seen here:

IMG_0269

memories…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simple and fun – and that’s it. What’s more, game creator Fingersoft often provide updates with new levels and cars to unlock (In this last update Bill Newton is even donning a spiffy Santa outfit that stays spotless even as his car gets splattered with alien planet muck.) Hill climb Racing doesn’t try to outdo itself. You can pick it up and set it down at your leisure. It is low commitment but wildly entertaining. The game stands strong on its own two legs, and stands tall apart from all those greedy 2013 AAA games. I raise a new year’s toast to Hill Climb Racing: Here’s to another wild twelve months.

I Suck at The Bridge

 

 

BridgeScribble

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simply put, The Bridge is a king hell bastard puzzle game that will, in any single puzzle, require your brain to not only comprehend but also maneuver up to three different layers of gravity and two ‘black & white worlds’ of reflection, both of which, in any given puzzle, may be occupied by Indiana Jones-like stone spheres, vortexes, and black and/or white keys and their corresponding locks. Everything affects everything else; changing one thing changes everything. The Bridge’s aesthetics is a bedeviling coverup to the fact that the game is pure spatial lunacy. And my brain cannot do this kind of processing. It.just.can’t. I am not wired to be able to patiently envision and enact the solution to these puzzles. My right parietal lobe must be swollen like a raisin or something. The only axons that must be active there are the ones that are still connected to my prefrontal cortex because, like a fat kid with moobs trying to play basketball with the rest of the gym class, whenever the solution to a puzzle exceeds what the axons are capable of they fire currents all the way to the other side of my brain which triggers the impulse to punch my monitor. Dark Souls didn’t even make me rage quit this much.

And, to an effect, co-opping with my brother in Portal 2 has also revealed just how deficient – how squishy – my spatial constructing abilities are. My brother, a bicycle mechanic, and who, upon purchasing a dissembled piece of furniture, can take a single glance at the instructions and piece that sucker together in the same amount of time it would take me, if charged with the same task, to play with my poo-poo. In Portal I’d stand there at the entrance to a new puzzle and would be pondering the mysteries of the universe while sucking my thumb and he would be running around, scoping the place out, and devising our escape. I’m lots of fun to play with.

So, The Bridge isn’t the enemy. Portal 2 isn’t the enemy. AntiChamber isn’t the enemy (Don’t EVEN get me started with Antichamber.) And my brother certainly isn’t the enemy. The enemy here is my flacid right parietal lobe.

Lobes

 

 

 

 

 

SteamOS – A Vision of the Future

There is no saying how much wit, how much depth of thought, how much fancy, presence of mind, courage, and fixed resolution there may have gone into the placing of a single stone of it. This is what we have to admire, – this grand power and heart of man in the thing.

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

Valve has a vision.

And it is not some kind of short-sighted crash and cash deal; It will involve more than innovative hardware. This vision looks to the future of PC gaming, one that will be successful only if everybody participates. Yes. The task of building a gaming infrastructure of this type from the ground up will require the efforts of developers and gamers alike. Valve’s vision will blur the line between creator and player even more, thus creating a kind of synergy that will be beautiful and true. This will not happen overnight. Technical hurdles will abound. Forum naysayers will try to impede, to claw down the progress, to sow seeds of doubt. And while the heavy-hitters of the industry stroke themselves over their own regurgitated next-gen consoles, trying to stand tall in their artificial edifices, Valve’s vision will be that wide unnerving rumble they feel beneath their crumbling foundations. In time, these giants will topple and flail about, the naysayers will scurry off, and PC gaming will see a new and triumphant dawn – An enlightening era where the power to create, share, distribute, collaborate, modify and hack is open to all who wish to put forth the effort, and it will proceed with fervor.

It is a beautiful vision, though its implementation is still in the embryonic stages. In three separate announcements during the week of 23 September 2013 Valve revealed the tools for making their vision a reality: SteamOS, Steam Machines, the Steam Controller. The hook at this point is to use these products to get gaming into the living room, onto HDTVs, in front of players who prefer the couch, having never considered – for whatever reason(s) – the advantages of PC gaming.

The finer details about the Steam Machine and Controller are still fuzzy. The Steam Machine is being hyped as a hybrid between console and PC. Valve is presently shipping out prototypes that are stuffed with ‘off-the-shelf’ PC parts to 300 eager beta testers. The approximate dimensions are 12 x 12 x 2.9 inches. Other specs are available via a quick Google search, though let us recognize that the Steam Machines will run SteamOS. The Steam Controller is meant to enable playing of all genres including – that’s right – real-time strategies. Instead of dual analog sticks, it has two pads employing a ‘haptic feedback’ system. You can read about initial user experiences of the beta pad over at Gamasutra, but suffice it to say that the pads are indented to recreate the responsiveness and assignability of traditional keyboard + mouse approach.

If these two components sound an awful lot like just another console – you’re right. How then is this not folly? With the next-gen consoles set to unload during this holiday season, what the devil chance does Valve have to stand against these? Valve even assumes that a large percentage of their customer base already own high-powered rigs and are in no hurry to trip over themselves to acquire a Steam Machine. Many digital journalists and forum participants are already pooh-poohing these devices, citing that, for example, the Steam Box won’t solve any problems it sets out to correct, it will not achieve it’s glorified PC revolution with this hardware – the vision has faded before it has even begun to make itself clear. And were these the only two components, innovative and attractive as they may be, I would agree.

The linchpin holding this grand vision in place is SteamOS, which will run on Linux. The idea is to combat the closed ecosystems of consoles with the power and flavors of running an operating system that is open source. Myopic naysayers are already bellyaching about the immediate compatibility problems with their existing game libraries. And what’s more, mountains of more gritty technical issues also stand in the way (This isn’t meant to be an overhaul of Microsoft… yet). But herein is the glory of the vision. Herein is the power to overcome obstacles with open paths and collective efforts – To fight the good fight, and to do it together.

Valve’s vision has the potential to get more people coding. One of the approaches to get gaming into the living room is to reach a new source of untapped minds. This move is not about creating a friendly co-existence between the disparities and biases of console and PC users. Valve is out to convert. The first phase of their vision will jar loose and attract the attention of those select individuals who may otherwise be ignorant to their own creative and technical potential. Concerning the realization of creative and critical powers Ruskin asserts, “… and from that moment he will find himself a power of judgment which can neither be escaped nor deceived, and discover subjects of interest where everything before had appeared barren.” Living room gamers will no longer have to be passive consumers.

Valve and Linux are the appropriate flagships for this endeavor. When you account Valve’s business approach their success comes as no surprise. The ongoing mentality there has always been one of community and shared contribution. And now that digital distribution is so widely utilized by thousands upon thousands of users – a trend that Valve has perpetuated through their Steam platform – why not continue this mode to attract and support new coders. Each small developer, each contribution, will be a node in a growing infrastructure. Perhaps Valve could come up with special incentives to encourage active participation in some capacity or other. More than anything, it would behoove this entire effort to have a vision statement for everyone to march under – to have a mark of the legion. And let us not forget Linux, the workhorse of this vision. Recent years have witnessed widespread adoption of the Linux kernel, and not just by some weird influx of basement neckbeards and butthurts. We’re talking Google. We’re talking Android…

And now we’re talking SteamOS: a trimmed-down new operating system that is bound attract fresh minds that tore through the walled gardens of gaming consoles (a wild success in itself), fresh perspectives as a result of collaboration, and empowering leading ideas for games, media utilities, source code, pedagogy – all distributed with ease through the digital aether, built from the ground up. Power in the dedication and will of the users. Ruskin seconds these virtues, citing that the success of a construction is found in “pure, precious, majestic massy intellect”. This is the vision. It is glorious. It is right. May we keep it in perspective.

(TL;DR? Better just stick to playing on consoles.)

SteamOS

 

Papers, Please – A Review

Lucas Pope wrote and coded Papers, Please. In this position of supremacy he calls his creation a Dystopian Document Thriller. In the game, the player assumes the role of immigration inspector in the soviet-like postwar state of Arstotzka. Under the direction (and watchful eye) of the Ministry of Admissions the player determines which individuals from neighboring states can and cannot enter. This assessment is accomplished by cross-referencing the information on passports with those of work permits, diplomatic seals, identification cards, entry permits, admission tickets, or any other documentation that the MOA demands, often changing the requirements on a daily basis. Do well, and you are paid well. Do poorly, and you may soon find yourself on the other side of that counter… or worse.

Intrinsically, I should hate Papers, Please. Every fiber of my body should convulse against a game whose mechanics operate solely on examining and shuffling papers in a cramped booth. Paperwork is the bane of my existence (along with parking garages and stepping in dog shit). Any paperwork pushed in my direction is completed (maybe) with a snarl on my face. But, I don’t hate Papers, Please. The game is a bittersweet table-turner for anyone who has ever been jerked around at the BMV or, heaven for bid, a border station. Armed with a green APPROVED stamp and a red DENIED stamp, you are a decider of fates. I may or may not derive tremendous satisfaction when I deny a hopeful entrant and see him sulk away into the shadows and walk out of my booth through the same door in which he entered.

I stamp wherever I want, son!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But, this is only the surface appeal; the game would otherwise flounder and perish. Papers, Please moves on deep currents of political intrigue. In the storymode, your stamps create narrative ripples (be sure to read the headlines!). During the course of the 30-day storyline, you can experience as many as twenty different endings. Your existence is layered. You may become entangled and associated with a group of radicals without even knowing it – but when you discover this it’s too late to back out. So you must manage your own lucrative intrigue under the nose of MOA, who may very well be involved in its own shady deals, in which you, as worker, are a pawn. As the days press on, other government agencies start stepping on your toes, thereby increasing the difficulty of your juggling act. The Ministry of Information is always sniffing around, rooting out bribe-takers; the Ministry of Justice posts their international ‘Most Wanted’ list on a daily basis, expecting you to cross-check mugshots; higher level MOA directors are monitoring your citation count; the checkpoint guards are getting on your case about the lack of detainees you send their way; political extremists are plopping bombs on your counter instead of paper work. And on top of all of this: you’ve still got crotchety old women trying to muzzle their through with expired passports.

In order to progress you need to develop a methodology and adapt it to the ever-changing daily rigors of working in an Arstotzkian immigration checkpoint. With all of the narrative entanglements, you need to walk a razors edge if you want to keep ahead. And this is all done under a constant time crunch; that clock in the lower left is always ticking. The more individuals that approach your bench, the more you get paid – and, by golly, money is tight enough as it is. Oh, and you’ve got a family to feed, keep warm and healthy.

Bomb disarmed. Jolted immigration inspector is jolted. Uncaring security officer does not care.

Papers, Please itself successfully walks its own razors edge. It creates a claustrophobic, time-crunched workspace but doesn’t recreate your mundane cubicle. The antiquated graphics are stylish yet functional (you try discerning the intricacies of 8-bit fingerprints with 10 seconds left of the work day). The game doesn’t take itself too seriously but isn’t gimmicky. It is tremendously challenging but fair. Indeed. Time is short – Act fast. Glory to Arstotzka!