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Giving Thanks for Great Stories: A Brunette Games Roundup

Gratitude

Here at BG, stories make our world go round. But I think that's true for everyone, every day. Imagine what it would be like to live on a planet with no stories, no fiction; the concept of make-believe is utterly non-existent. That would be a sterile world, in my opinion. We need stories like we need air. They tell us who we are every minute, they help us make sense of the world, they connect us with our own emotions, and they foster empathy for our fellow humans.

With that in the background and in honor of the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer this roundup of the stories we're most grateful for right now. No doubt in anticipation of our official office closure this week, all of us gravitated toward binge-watch shows. 

Dexter’s Fascination with Fear

When it comes to popular TV shows and their spinoffs, it’s always hit or miss, with the vast majority being miss. However, one has astounded me ever since its debut: Fear the Walking Dead, a spinoff of the popular zombie drama, The Walking Dead.

The pilot premiered in August 2015. Unlike its parent show, which derives directly from comic book source material, Fear the Walking Dead strives for originality, often portraying elements of a zombie apocalypse never seen before. This is quite a feat, especially considering just how played the zombie genre is at this point.

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Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, in Fear the Walking Dead.

While Fear the Walking Dead’s first season was a bit rocky, it did get one very crucial thing right, which was its lead character. In a survival genre dominated by men slashing and bashing their way through hordes of the undead and the living, Fear the Walking Dead offered a lead unlike any other in Madison Clark, a middle-aged mother whose story is one of the most realistic, grounded I’ve ever seen. She’s not a veteran survivor. She’s not a trained killer. She’s just a former guidance counselor trying to protect her children. Played by Kim Dickens, Madison never fails to steal the scene. 

With its phenomenal writing, Fear the Walking Dead grew to become a truly exceptional show that often falls under the radar. Madison remains compelling as she leads viewers across the crumbling landscape of California, through pirate-infested waters, over the desolate lands of Mexico, and onto the barren, apocalyptic landscape of Texas. If you're looking for a strong, well-developed female lead, look no further.

Tamsen's Penchant for Pirates

The most compelling narrative that I’ve binged so far this year is Black Sails (available to watch on Hulu). The series is a Treasure Island prequel that has a very addicting storyline and lots of character development.

Though not for the faint of heart, the story follows the more political aspects and power struggles involved in the pirate lifestyle. There are definitely plenty of scenes riddled with sex and violence, but it doesn’t feel as gratuitous as many other shows. The pace never drags, and the pilot episode sets up the course of the entire series quite nicely.

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There are countless overarching plotlines, but the entirety of the show deals with holding on to their lifestyle in a rapidly-changing world.

I admire the interconnected, separate plotlines feeding into a larger story in Black Sails. This could be a valuable example to game designers who wish to create more open-world games, as many of the small plotlines seem to parallel the plot of a side quest. While sometimes side quests feel unnecessary and unrelated, the way the creators have everything feed into each other makes it more rewarding for the viewer. As a side note, I want to make a pirate version of Red Dead Redemption, so the inspiration is real.

Elisa's Fascination with World Building

Possibly the best sci-fi TV series I've ever watched almost came to an end this year. But it didn't.

After three riveting seasons on Syfy, The Expanse (based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey) got cancelled, but after fans mobilized on social media to #SaveTheExpanse, Amazon Prime picked it up for a fourth season. Thank goodness!

So what's the excitement about? For me, it's how the series draws on science, sociology, and even linguistics to create three compelling cultures inevitably drawn into conflict. The Expanse takes place in our solar system, in a distant future where Earth and its rival Mars depend on mining in the Asteroid Belt for precious basic resources. The Earthers, Martians, and Belters coexist uneasily until a devastating alien "protomolecule" threatens them all.

Expanse

Much as you might despise Earth's scheming UN deputy undersecretary, Chrisjen Avasarala (played by the peerless Shohreh Aghdashloo), you can't help but admire her ardent defense of her beloved planet. I choked up when tough-as-nails Martian marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) sought her first glimpse of water on Earth after a lifetime on a waterless planet.

But it's the richness of the Belter culture I love most. The Belter underclasses have long supplied ice and minerals under duress to Earth and Mars but are themselves starved for resources. Living in low gravity has altered their very physiology; Belters' long, brittle bones and weaker muscles can't endure Earth's gravity. Yet, the Belters possess a fierceness and identity all their own. They speak a creole—based on languages as distinct as Chinese, Bantu, and English—that actors such as Jared Harris and Cara Gee (who play Belter leaders Anderson Dawes and Camina Drummer, respectively) convey so convincingly. Even Belter tattoos have messages behind them.

There are whole series to be written just about the Belters. Ultimately, that's the hallmark of robust world building: that the stories you write give rise to yet more stories.

Lisa's Obsession with 'Reality' Stories

I've written before about my guilty-pleasure HGTV binges... which is part of why I have not had cable since 2005, when I ditched the TV and its connections. That hasn't exactly stopped me from bingeing, but without the stream of cable I have considerably more control over my addictions. The current drugs are house-hunting and home improvement shows from the BBC on Netflix, starting with "Sarah Beeny's Selling Houses."

On this show, rival homeowners are each given a thousand pounds to bring their pads up to snuff, vying for the attention of one buyer, who will view them all. Beeny herself swoops in to plant key criticisms and advice for how to spend the thousand pounds, but of course many of them ignore her and head off the rails, usually both breaking their budgets and failing to solve the problem that drove buyers away in the first place. As someone who's on her fourth owned property, I find this entire process enormously entertaining.

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Absolutely, I was #TeamFrankie.

My obsession with British lifestyle doesn't end with the home but extends to all the "homely" (in the UK this is a compliment) things you can do in a home. Even though I can't eat flour, eggs, or sugar, when a new season of "The Great British Baking Show" drops, I have to watch it. But my favorite of them all is "The Great Interior Design Challenge," where a handful of amateur interior designers compete with one room and (again) a thousand pounds to prove their competence with the color wheel. Fantasizing about moving to the English countryside and renovating a "chocolate box" cottage with a thatched roof is just an itch I can't scratch enough. 

Luckily, all of this binge-watching is useful in my work on games. Consider it "research." I've used my deep, TV-acquired knowledge of home decor in my design and writing on Matchington Mansion. There's a whole premium scene in Choices: Veil of Secrets centered around the magnificence that is the English savory picnic pie. And for the interactive novel I'm working on now, I draw inspiration both for the settings and the characters I design from the stream of real people and their homes as they come and go on these shows. I enjoy the quirky texture of the average Brit, having his or her 15 minutes of fame.

What binge-watch story gets your gratitude--not to mention your screen time--this week? Tell us in the comments.

Other roundups you might like:

The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

Something Mysterious: December Reading Roundup

 


What Would You Like to Read on the Blog?

 

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

It's been a while--since January, actually--since I've posted on the blog, and for that I apologize.

Long story short, I've struggled with what amounted to two full-time jobs for the past year, since I took that visiting professorship at Webster University, AND AT THE SAME TIME, MY INDIE GAME STUDIO BLEW UP. Don't get me wrong; this is a good problem to have these days. But when your priority list exceeds the number of hours in a given week, some things need to drop off, and sadly, this blog was one of them. 

But I've missed it. And you--its reason for being. As I look ahead to hopefully a more life-balanced rest of the year, I'm mulling over what this blog should and shouldn't be, and I'd love to get your opinion. So I created a survey.

It's short. Survey Monkey tells me you can take it in two minutes. If you've got two minutes to spare, please weigh in on the types of topics and guests you'd like to see on the blog.

The survey is completely anonymous. I'm not collecting any data on who fills it out or when or why or what your first-born child's name is, I promise. I will analyze the results in the aggregate and pay attention to any "other" comments you've written, no names or strings attached.

And if you'd rather share your opinion in the comment section below this post, feel free. The survey asks general questions about reading and gaming habits and interests, and then basically asks what you'd like to see here on the blog in the future. I'm all ears. Thank you!

In case you missed that survey link above, here's a button! Go ahead and push it! Or click on it! Just go there!

 

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The Play's the Thing: December Game Roundup

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Here are three games on my to-play list this winter, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the future, too. This month I'm looking at interactive fictional mysteries with a common theme, that of isolation and connection.

Firewatch by Campo Santo

Firewatch is a mystery set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio.

The year is 1989. 

You are a man named Henry who has retreated from your messy life to work as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. Perched atop a mountain, it's your job to find smoke and keep the wilderness safe. 

An especially hot, dry summer has everyone on edge. Your supervisor, a woman named Delilah, is available to you 

at all times over a small, handheld radio—and is your only contact with the world you've left behind. 

But when something strange draws you out of your lookout tower and into the world below, you'll explore a wild and unknown environment, facing questions and making interpersonal choices that can build or destroy the only meaningful relationship you have.

Lifeline: Silent Night by 3-Minute Games

The hearts and imaginations of countless players worldwide were captured when the original Lifeline took the App Store by storm and became the #1 Top Paid Game, and now Taylor needs your help again in Lifeline: Silent Night! Acclaimed author Dave Justus returns with a suspenseful new story that plays out in real time, delivering notifications throughout your day. Keep up as they come in, or catch up later when you’re free. You can even respond to Taylor directly from your Apple Watch or iPhone lock screen without launching into the app. Your choices shape the story as you play. Simple actions can have a profound effect. Complete any single path in the game and then go back and see what happens when you make a different choice. Lifeline: Silent Night is a deep, immersive story of survival and perseverance, and it’s up to you to save the White Star before it’s too late for its intrepid crew. The fate of Taylor, and the world, is in your hands!

The 39 Steps by The Story Mechanics

Prepare to experience the original man-on-the-run thriller in a completely new way. In this digital adaptation by The Story Mechanics, be transported back to 1914 London, where Richard Hannay finds himself framed for a murder he didn't commit. Now he must escape the Capital and stay alive long enough to solve the riddle of The 39 Steps. There are secrets to be discovered, locations to be explored and - above all - an incredible tale to be told in this ground-breaking interactive novel.

Merry Christmas! I wish you hours of joyful play.

 


The Play's the Thing: August Game Roundup

  Deduction and intrigue

Every so often, I'll bring you a roundup of games in the deduction and intrigue category. Here are four games on my to-play list this summer, and I hope to bring you some of these developers as guests on the blog in the coming months, too.

But first, a quick PSA. Reviews are a developer's life blood - and they're an easy gift to give. Just pick a star rating and write one or two sentences to provide other players a quick impression, or feel free to write more if you like. I've provided links below so you can follow these folks and review their games.

This month I've got two digital games and two tabletop. Let's start with the digitals.

Contradiction by Tim Follin

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Contradiction is an interactive crime drama game that uses live-action video for the entirety of the game play. It’s a brand new take on the concept of an interactive movie and brings the genre to a whole new level of playability.

Contradiction plays as smoothly as a 3D graphic game. You can wander freely around the game environment, collecting evidence and witnessing constantly changing events. 

However, the centrepiece of the game is interviewing the characters you meet, who can be questioned about all the evidence you’ve collected and things you’ve seen. The name of the game is then spotting contradictions in their answers, catching them out and moving the game along.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

Follow on Twitter

Psy High by Rebecca Slitt, for Choice of Games

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When the kids at your high school start developing psychic powers, you and your friends must team up to stop the principal from taking over the world! 

Psy High is an interactive teen supernatural mystery novel by Rebecca Slitt, where your choices control the story. It's entirely text-based—without graphics or sound effects—and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination. 

Play as male or female; gay, straight, or bi. Will you be a jock or a brain? Popular or ignored? Use your psychic powers to help others, or to take what you want. Win a coveted scholarship, star in the Drama Club play - or lose it all and spend your senior year in juvenile detention. How much are you willing to sacrifice to get ahead in the world? 

Can you solve the case? Can you save the school? And most importantly, can you find a date to the prom? You can play the first three chapters of the game for free.

Review on Steam and the App Store.

Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Now for the tabletop games, which are both cooperatives encouraging players to work together toward a common goal, in this first case catching Jack the Ripper. 

Letters from Whitechapel by Fantasy Flight Games

  Whitechapel

Get ready to enter the poor and dreary Whitechapel district in London 1888 – the scene of the mysterious Jack the Ripper murders – with its crowded and smelly alleys, hawkers, shouting merchants, dirty children covered in rags who run through the crowd and beg for money, and prostitutes – called "the wretched" – on every street corner.

The board game Letters from Whitechapel, which plays in 90-150 minutes, takes the players right there. One player plays Jack the Ripper, and his goal is to take five victims before being caught. The other players are police detectives who must cooperate to catch Jack the Ripper before the end of the game. The game board represents the Whitechapel area at the time of Jack the Ripper and is marked with 199 numbered circles linked together by dotted lines. During play, Jack the Ripper, the Policemen, and the Wretched are moved along the dotted lines that represent Whitechapel's streets. Jack the Ripper moves stealthily between numbered circles, while policemen move on their patrols between crossings, and the Wretched wander alone between the numbered circles.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

Follow on Instagram and Facebook.

Mysterium by Asmodee

Mysterium

In the 1920s, Mr. MacDowell, a gifted astrologist, immediately detected a supernatural being upon entering his new house in Scotland. He gathered eminent mediums of his time for an extraordinary séance, and they have seven hours to contact the ghost and investigate any clues that it can provide to unlock an old mystery.

Unable to talk, the amnesic ghost communicates with the mediums through visions, which are represented in the game by illustrated cards. The mediums must decipher the images to help the ghost remember how he was murdered: Who did the crime? Where did it take place? Which weapon caused the death? The more the mediums cooperate and guess well, the easier it is to catch the right culprit.

Review on Amazon and BoardGameGeek.

Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

 


For the Love of the Game (Story)

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Since transitioning out of my narrative design role at Big Fish in February, I've been looking for exciting new opportunities in the games industry. One of my discoveries is a juicy online magazine put out by the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games--yes, they call it 'Spag Mag.' Issue 64 went live yesterday, with my article "Evolving Storytelling in Hidden-Object Games" included. Working with the astute, responsive Katherine Morayati, Spag's editor, was a fantastic experience, and I'm honored to be on the roster. Writing the piece gave me the chance to reflect on five years at the narrative design helm, working with some of the most talented developers and producers in the casual industry and enjoying the rare opportunity to steer the storylines on Big Fish's flagship titles.

I continue to look for great games to play and work on in addition to writing books and articles. Unfortunately, a lot of the popular games today don't have much story, and in my opinion, that makes them boring. Pokémon Go lost me pretty quickly because it lacked a story hook. I'm just not motivated enough to simply collect and fight with creatures, and I get better quality exercise and social interaction around my dance classes.

It seems a lot of developers don't pay attention to what a powerful and yet cost-effective driver story can be in a game. Since a lot of what counts as story is delivered as text on-screen, it doesn't add hugely to the budget. There's of course a whole design method for adding visual story elements as part of the world-building and game-play integration, which I discuss in the Spag piece. One narrative designer/writer could make a measurable difference in player retention. Bewilderingly, developers tend to consider story last, if at all. But in nearly a decade in the industry, I can tell you that focusing on story from the get-go is key.

There are wonderful examples of story-in-games out there, I know it. As I've mentioned previously, one of these found me--the chance to write text for an iOS game called Smash Squad. I've got a few on my to-play list as well, such as Contradiction and any of the choose-your-own-adventure style put out by Choice of Games (I just finished Alexandria). But I'd like to throw this out to others for recommendations. I'm looking for non-combat games of any type. I prefer mystery and playing on a laptop but am open to other themes and platforms (I have an old Wii, an Xbox, and a DS). Tell me what's out there that excites you!

 Image via Big Fish, from Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst.