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Interview: Jake Elliott of Cardboard Computer

Last week we wrote about Balloon Diaspora, an indie adventure game that challenges a lot of the standard ideas of what an adventure game should be. Instead of focusing on puzzles and obtuse mechanics, it focused on conversation and on experiencing a world inhabited by refugees from the Balloon Archipelago.

The best part is, you don’t have to be believe me. You can download it yourself for free. I recommend it highly, as it was one of my favorite experiences of the year so far.

After we played and posted about it, we asked the man behind Cardboard Computer, Jake Elliott, some questions about the game and its design process.

To start with the generic, why did you start making games?

Well, I’d been making software art and experimental/noise music for I guess 10 years or so and I had made a handful of small games and game-like things as a part of that practice — like weird small things
in art school; games that were deliberately broken or had strange interfaces, nothing too focused. Then in the beginning of 2009 I worked on a project with my friends jonCates and Tamas Kemenczy — a
text adventure game called “Sidequest” which was a poetic, experimental homage to Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure. There’s this kind of beautiful and sad story behind “Adventure” — Crowther actually designed it for his daughters to play, after going through a divorce. So we were responding to the emotional charge of the game as well as its cultural significance.

I actually didn’t contribute too much to that game, but working on it and talking about it with them helped me open up to a different way of working with games that was still experimental but more narrative and affective. So that was really exciting, and then after getting familiar with some tools like Flash and the Flixel game engine I started making more involved games.
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The Weight of Definition: Balloon Diaspora

Balloon Diaspora is a funny little game that’s weighed heavily on me since I’ve played it. It is ethereal and wonderful like a leaf blowing in through an open window in fall, but at its core it asks a powerful question: how do we define ourselves, and how do we define others?

In nearly every video game, we are defined, like it or not, as questioners. We are eternally detectives, divining information about other parties, developing concrete entities the developer places in the game world, but never developed ourselves. We exist to probe the depths of others’ consciousnesses, to expose their deepest secrets. It’s a joke that in all the big name RPGs that everyone somehow, miraculously, trusts you enough to reveal things they’ve never told others, because otherwise these characters would be reserved and shallow. As it is, it is exploitative. If they didn’t talk to you, then what would they be besides walking clichés? When they talk, they become something more, but they become characters lesser than you.

Balloon Diaspora, an independent adventure game developed by Cardboard Computer (who we’ve talked about before within these very walls!), makes us ask a different question: what if others were the questioners? What if individuals asked questions of us, asked us to define ourselves as well as they were defined, and asked us to play a role in the story? Not a superficial, “pick X to stab the man, pick Y to lay his wife, pick Z to steal his money” choice, but rather a deep, meaningful definitive choice?

What would the world be like if you could invent it?
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Bastion looking swell

One more brief trailer into the breach my friends! Bastion was recently picked up by publisher Warner Bros. Interactive, most likely for one of those fancy “Summer of Live” releases, and had a new trailer released at roughly the same time from GDC. We missed it, in a spurt of Dragon Age 2 and Pokemon related reverie, but now we’re here, and we’ve got the scoop. The days old, completely stale scoop!

But that’s okay, because Bastion is one of those games more and more people deserve to hear about. Made by guys who worked on Command and Conquer games for EA in the past, Bastion is nothing, at all, like that, but instead a stylized top down dungeon crawler a la Diablo 2. Its main selling point, however, is its wonderful aesthetic sense. Like, the game is absolutely charming, and the trailer above will sell it a thousand times better than I can.

And yes, I hate doing promotional type posts, but I make an exception for indies, or when I am absorbed in two 40+ hour long games. Oh, actually three, since Radiant Historia still exists and is a thing.

Wacky trail of the day: Kentucky Route Zero

We missed the boat on this extremely hard, but Kentucky Route Zero is a game being made by Cardboard Computer who apparently made games I’ve either not heard of or meant to play in the past.

In any case, this is one of the better trailers I’ve seen recently (up there, but not exceeding, Dead Island), and it’s made me put an eye on the title. And play their previous titles. We’re too late to even post a link to the kickstarter page that was funding the game. Man, I’m pretty useless, aren’t I?

But whatever. It’s a cool trailer, and begs the question: why not more games with America influences? Why not?

SPENT a different kind of game

Games like SPENT are interesting studies in potential. I’ve long contended that the proper avenue for edutainment is documentary and not dumbed down children’s games full of math problems. What a video game, as interactive fiction, can do is let you live the life of someone else, and that is a very valuable tool.

SPENT takes that idea and runs with it, though it doesn’t make it exceptionally far. A docugame about living below the poverty line, it crams in a terribly unrealistic amount of crap to try to drive its point home, that poverty is difficult, except…an unrealistic amount of stuff happens, and the game is, on the whole, too easy. It’s an interesting thought experiment, though, and for that it deserves to be looked at. We have never objected to documentary on account of a lack of facts, so I don’t see the reason to tar and feather a game that does a lot of interesting things because its facts are designed to promote a (pretty good) cause.

Give it a go, in any event.

More Finished Games?

Comments of the most curious nature came out of Gaijin Games’ Alex Neuse’s interview with GameSetWatch. To provide you with a block quote:

I think that the indie scene is out of control. There are SO many games being made, it’s hard to keep track of them all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a gamer who loves to play a game through to completion, I find it hard to set aside the time to give these games the play time they deserve.

In the future of the indie scene, I hope to see more games actually get finished and make it to market. I’m sick of playing half-done games that are riddled with bugs. Like all consumers, I like products that work and that are complete experiences.

We’re now going to spend some length of time unfuddling this absolutely baffling statement.
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Review: Atom Zombie Smasher

Few games are funny. Humor is a difficult card to play in a video game. Yes, good writing can help, but in the end it can only pull so much; eventually, the gameplay needs to back up the zaniness of the product; this is something most game developers have a hard time understanding.

Blendo Games’ previous titles, Flotilla and Air Forte, mostly achieved this. They had the writing and the punch lines to make you smile, but not quite the delivery. Not to say they were bad: Flotilla was one of my favorites of last year, a perfect coffee break game that hit all the right notes. It was a good game, but the writing had to carry a lot of the comedy. There was disconnect between it and the gameplay–the world was ludicrous, but the situation you were in smacked more of desperation than insanity.

And now we enter Atom Zombie Smasher, a game that is hilarious and features the gameplay to completely back it up. It is a stunner, a great game that presses every button, even the big red one that says “Do Not Use”.
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Review: Cthulhu Saves the World

There aren’t enough games made about Cthulhu. Point of fact. Ancient, eldritch alien evils of insanity are, frankly, a lot better than grandstanding idiots, various varieties of demons, and the lord Jesus Christ. This is empirical fact.

And hell, Cthulhu Saves the World shows that those eldritch evils make fine Japanese Role Playing Game protagonists, too. Heck, I’d take the shirtless, tentacled majesty of Cthulhu over Tidus any day. This is another positive development in the history of Western civilization.

There are two audiences for Cthulhu Saves the World, the newest game from Zeboyd Games, creators of Breath of Death VII: Cthulhu maniacs and old school JRPG fans. The game succeeds in short, brilliant bursts for the first crowd, and in a long, sustained burn for the latter.

I am in both groups, so you may take me saying this is a great game and the best role playing game of 2010 with a slight grain of salt. But it really was. Sure, I’m going to pick a nit in this review (and, frankly, it’s pretty large), but that does not detract from the overall experience, which is phenomenal and falls among the best games I played last year.
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Xbox Live Indie getting all the games in one week

This post is subtitled: “Cthulhu Saves the World has a release date!”

Anyway, you’ve probably been on the XBL Indie section once or twice. Probably around when I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 was released. You looked at the other best selling games, and found a stream of crap, and many, many titles involving zombies, avatars, or massaging. I mean, XBL Indie is at best a brilliant idea poorly done, as evidenced by the game Try Not to Fart being one of the top selling titles. Seriously, people. Seriously. And it’s evident that some of the creators on the service are fed up with the state of affairs, but until now, there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. Microsoft seemed content to relegate it to non-priority status, and has not done a whole lot to promote it. Mostly, the system has relied on grassroots promotion, with the most successful titles being fan favorites like the aforementioned game with zombies in it or Breath of Death VII, an old school comedy RPG that’s actually quite good.

Now, though, things change. A collection of the best talents on the marketplace are banding together to overwhelm the crap by releasing all their games on the same day. …Yes, I know, I’m about as confused as you are. On one hand, it makes a good news story, that’ll get play pretty much everywhere. On the other, I don’t have $50 of expendable cash on the first week of December. I have maybe $10. Which is unfortunate, because so many of these games look fantastic. I was considering highlighting specific ones as the “best of the bunch”, but honestly, with sequels to a number of games I liked (Breath of Death, Aphelion which we reviewed!, and Soulcaster) as well as new games from Ska Studios (maker of the game with the zombies in it and personal favorite Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, possibly the best XBLA game) and radiangames, as well as some awesome looking new titles like competitive brawler Chu’s Dynasty, stick adventurer Alpha Squad, roguelike Epic Dungeon, and the awesomely named Asteroids Do Concern Me, I mean, fuck, how do I highlight one or the other.

In any case, the first week of December is going to be pretty awesome. Though we do not know whether that means December 1st (which is a Wednesday, so XBLA updates) or the first week of December proper, as yet. But it doesn’t matter, because this winter, we will all be poor!

If you’re still skeptical of these games, have no fear, for we shall bring you detailed, tangent-filled reviews of many of these games!

Review: Costume Quest

We should have seen it coming.

There are two types of games on PSN and XBLA. The first is the game that takes small ideas, polishes them to the point of perfection, and then layers on the charm, creating a memorable experience. Recently released (on the same day, no less!) title Super Meat Boy does this to perfection: it is a simple game I could play forever. The other kind is a game that really desires to be a fully featured, $60 game, and uses its price tag and downloadable nature as a crutch to excuse it for overreaching and, ultimately, failing.

And that, sadly, is what we have with Costume Quest.

It’s not a bad game. Okay, it’s schlock. It’s an awful game. But it tries really hard. It is a game with a soul, except its soul is stuck in a sad, depressing body.
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