September 2nd, I was invited by USC’s MEGA organization to deliver a welcome talk to kick off their year of programming. I had to abridge my talk for the sake of time, but if you’re interested in reading it, here it is in its unabridged entirety.
Hello everybody, my name is Kevin Wong and welcome to MEGA.
During my time here, my friends and I organized a company called “team ok”, and by uniting a community of game developers, we built Chambara. Chambara won the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award and was nominated for Best Student Game at the Independent Games Festival. It exhibited at festivals worldwide before releasing on PlayStation 4 this summer to positive reviews.
Let me say that you are amongst good people, filled with integrity, talent, and the courage to follow their dreams.
You may come from different majors and schools, different backgrounds, identities, skill levels, and ranges of interest in games. Whether you’ve been playing games since you were little, or have only recently entered into this baffling microcosm, you all have a home here at MEGA.
The people here will be your friends, collaborators, teachers, family. Together, you may embark on a great adventure that will intersect with the paths of many other people. There, you’ll discover truths about you, your friends, and the world.
While I was a student, I served on the MEGA board for the 2014-2015 term, and together, we organized events to unite the USC Games community with other communities across campus and Los Angeles. Attend these events and connect with like-and-differently minded people, you’ll help each other on the path to your future.
That said, if you’re looking for pointers on how to use your time here well, I have a few ideas that I’d like to pass on to you.
Engage with the community, in and out of USC. Los Angeles has such a wonderful community of games people, and no matter what’s your relationship with games, you’re bound to find someone cool that you’d want to connect with.
Los Angeles is home to A-list YouTubers, a vibrant VR scene, indie games collectives like Glitch City and LA Game Space, curated art spaces like Giant Robot, electronic music groups like Galaxy Swim Team and Zoom Lens, academics exploring the intersections of games with other forms of art, and renowned companies like Riot, Naughty Dog, and Konami that make games admired everywhere.
We host events like E3, IndieCade, and GamesBeat that attract people from across the world. This city overflows with exciting and creative people, and count yourself amongst them. You are part of this scene, so get to know people here, share and receive knowledge, and build the community. MEGA can help you do that.
That said, do respect the community. Be gentle with others and treat them how they’d like to be treated. This means doing stuff like respecting people’s pronouns and not making assumptions about them. There’s etiquette to be upheld when you’re working with others, and interrupting people, dominating conversations, and generally leaving little room for others is toxic. One way to help is by becoming a good listener, which might be one of the most constructive ways you can grow here.
Be considerate with the projects you take on. As you build visibility in the community, you might find yourself invited onto projects like AGPs and thesis projects. You have goals, an identity, stuff you’re into and a loose interpretation of what you want to do with your time here, recognize that.
Even if every project you take on helps you grow, not every project you do will help become the kind of person you want to be. So be selective with what you agree to, what roles you take, and curate experiences to move you forwards. Don’t tether yourself to relationships with people and projects that you don’t need unless you’re trying to get a taste for what’s out there and what your potential futures could look like.
This can manifest as a person who was a great artist in high school wanting to become a better coder, or someone who wants to have a large portfolio of small, personal work but not getting to do that since they end up agreeing to only big team projects. Four years isn’t a long time, and you should use that time productively. Take time to ask yourself, “Who am I, and why am I here?”, that could help you consider what projects make sense for you more smartly.
So, what I’d like to leave you with. Thank you for giving me your time and inviting me to speak here. I hope you have an amazing time, and if you’d like to talk to me more, I encourage you to contact me on Twitter, where my handle is @thatkevinwong.
To whom may be reading this, I really don’t write here much anymore. My writing/crit work feels far removed from a lot of the work I’m doing now.
What I’m writing tonight is a bit of an overdue announcement. Chambara has been nominated alongside a bunch of amazing games from students from places like OCAD and NYU for the “Best Student Game” award at this year’s Independent Games Festival! This is an amazing honor and it comes at the start of the next major development phase that we have to do. This is something that I hope that can inspire us to do our very best work and perform at our creative peak as we close this phase of our nascent careers as game designers.
Speaking personally about the IGF, I grew up in San Francisco, and saw GDC happen each year throughout high school. I was never allowed in because liability restrictions prevented minors from going into the conference, so I would catch every talk, awards show, and presser I could through live blogs and streams. It was slightly obsessive.
As a teenager, I watched the IGF awards and would be amazed at how talented and creative these developers could be. The college students that participated in the Student Showcase category seemed to live lives far removed from anything my limited existence could accommodate. My summer camp maze game and twelfth-grade shmup were not comparable at all to what these students made, and I could never see the work that I would make belonging there. Never would I have expected that something I will make five years into the future would be nominated for “Best Student Game”.
Mired in a project, its easy to get into the mindset of just seeing only that which is right in front of you, abandoning the foresight and hindsight to be either reflective or strategic. The Kevin of six years ago would have been overjoyed to hear this news.
But for now, I just feel like leaping into this next, planned, phase of development with the resolve to create the best thing we can for our players and for the world we share with all, and leap we will.
To whom may be reading this, we hope to see you at this year’s IGF Pavilion. We think we’ll have a good build to show you.
It’s been forever since I last updated this blog. I’ve had plans to do some in-depth articles, specifically an in-depth analysis of the Metal Gear Solid series and a personal essay about my story and how I ended up doing games, but life has the tendency of getting in the way of unrewarded stuff that I really want to do. Topics worthy of discussion spring up and evaporate like springtime flowers, and stuff like Flappy Bird, Twitch Plays Pokemon, GDC 2014, and this weekend’sGAME_JAM controversy. But alas, I’ve found myself working pretty much every waking hour for the past two months on a number of projects.
I’m giving talks and leading discussions now. Working with MEGA, the game developer’s club at USC, I’m running a monthly series of salons where people can come in and discuss contemporary games from thematic, design, narrative, and aesthetic standpoints, the format of which I’m basing off the similar Playthink art/game salon. I’ve run three thus far, respectively covering The Stanley Parable, Twitch Plays Pokemon, and Papers, Please, and each of them greatly exceeded expected attendance, making for very lively, often packed discussions. I’m planning on running for MEGA’s staff elections at the end of this week, so come out to SCI on Friday and let’s plan fun stuff for the next year.
I’m running playtests for a Master’s thesis project at USC, working in a dedicated observation lab, I record feedback and player behavior in hopes of improving Logan Ver Hoef’s thesis: The Observatory. I’ve run playtests before for intermediate projects, but this one is particularly interesting because it deals with game feel and environmental narrative, two things I’m very interested in learning about and deploying in my own games.
I’m handling website content for The Maestros, a competitive online RTS-deathmatch game being run this year as an Advanced Games project. The game is currently in public alpha, and you can easily download a build of the game, create an account, and begin playing immediately. The game’s core narrative is a bit uncomfortable for me, exploring themes about violence, imperialism, and its ideological ramifications through its mechanics, and maintaining websites and reaching out to the press isn’t what I’m interested in doing with my career, but I’m glad that it has been immensely successful, right now, its one of the most polished games to have ever come out of USC.
The Pilgrim comes from an original design document I wrote late last December. It was a very personal game dealing with religious belief and the life-compromises that observing those beliefs predicate, something that I’ve considered in my own life for years. This narrative would be delivered through an inverted-Metroidvania narrative, with the player surrendering powers and abilities to fulfill her purpose and complete the journey through an abandoned mine underneath a Temple. Teaming up with my good friend Catherine Fox, I decided to make the game my project for Peter Brinson and Richard Lemarchand’s Intermediate Game Design class.
I learned more from this ongoing project than from any project I’ve done before, except for perhaps Dark Deception, a RPG system and campaign I ideated back in high school. Working on the project as part of a two-person team, while coordinating external testing and audio, I dealt with more scripting than I’ve ever had before. We also dealt a lot with scoping, and The Pilgrim shrunk from a short Metroidvania-styled adventure to a short-form platformer/adventure game more resembling the mountain scene from Journey, with the avatar becoming increasingly feeble and hard to control as she progressed towards her goal.
I hit a few major hitches while working on the game. I became very sick one week in early March, causing me to lose an entire week from our production cycle, forcing me to crunch later on. I also spent two weeks prototyping myriad versions of a single feature that was ultimately cut due to performance issues. Communication with the rest of the team has also been a challenge, and making sure that everyone was on the same page and understood our vision and codebase has been something I’m not personally satisfied with, having blocked off progress from other team members by not communicating well. A rough project, but one that I’m glad to have undertaken.
I ran into my CTIN-488 TA, Jesse Vigil, late last week, who was impressed with my team’s final project and suggested that we submit it to Indiecade. I don’t think any of the digital games in my portfolio is festival-quality, but FROM WITHIN was an interesting and exciting project that I really enjoyed working on. It’s a party game for nine players meant to be played in eerily-lit basements around snack-laden tables. The mechanics are rather simplistic and exist to create intense dramatic tension and catharsis, contextualizing the rich social play of scaring and deceiving other players. I’m excited to get my team back together to revise the game for submission come this May. If anything I’ve done is festival-quality, its definitely that game.
Secret Scotland Project
This is a project that I’m excite to work on. I’m working with a small team of some of my best, most talented friends to pitch a game for Dare to be Digital, an international game design competition in Scotland. If we get accepted, it would be the single greatest game design challenge that I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most exciting. We’re super-eager to work on this game, and the prospects of traveling to the UK to compete on the world stage for a BAFTA is thrilling.
After nearly a year of work, the third season of the Reality Ends Here game has finally come to a close. I joined the project as a narrative/puzzle designer back in January by taking the ARG practicum class, and the game has come a long way since its cloudy inception. Past iterations of the game have been incredibly successful, having won the 2012 Indiecade Impact Award and being cited by Extra Credits in their episode about games in education. The game helped me take my first steps forward into the most creative and prolific period of my life when I played it, this year’s iteration is a bit different, the air of mystery surrounding the game isn’t quite as pronounced due to a multitude of reasons, inhibiting the desired feeling of anarchic excitement critical to the game’s success.
Nonetheless, I’m incredibly proud of our work with this game. Reality Ends Here – Season 3 has served its purpose, connecting its players into a diverse network of friends, mentors, and rivals, changing how they go about their everyday lives at USC, bringing any given idea into oft-amazing fruition. Reality Ends Here was my favorite game of 2012, and I am incredibly grateful to have been granted the blessing of working on its next season. I hope that I have been able to create an awesome first-semester experience for this year’s Freshmen, and hope to seem them step forward into fruitful, prolific careers of courageous integrity.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
1. PROLIFIC CORE PLAYERS
In terms of players to content created, the third season of Reality Ends Here was one the most successful ever run. Over the course of eighteen weeks, over 250 projects were created ranging from the punk, to the postmodern, to the absurd. This is impressive given that the 2012 Season had approximately 196 deals and the 2011 Season had 112. The core group of players consistently put effort into their work, creating roughly a new project each week. Familiar faces were seen regularly in the Game Office, allowing us to form a relationship with our players and understand them and their work on a deeper level. A greater variety of non-film Maker cards was included in the 2013 deck, allowing players to do work in different mediums such as derives, manifestos, and zines, marked by the largest number of nondigital games to have been seen in any version of Reality. Cross compatibility with the Annenberg version of the game allowed players to explore themes and mediums left untouched in film school, expanding their horizons substantially. One of the most notable additions was a “Solo Project” Special Card, which would bestow points for working alone on a project. While this falls slightly outside of the intended aesthetic of friendly cooperation, this was a heavily used card which players enjoyed playing with.
2. RABBIT-HOLE & “ARG-SAUCE”
Outside of trading cards and “leveling up” by passing predesignated point thresholds, solving complex puzzles
was the primary means for players to get new cards. While nothing as complex or sophisticated as Season 2’s Minecraft world emerged from this season, the seven puzzles that we did deploy sparked players imaginations and had them exploring the campus, scouring it for its secrets. Every little indication or hint that we would drop our players would quickly pick up, analyzing them and seeking meaning in the clues. One puzzle had players rearrange a set of directions on basis of Oscar History to form a map that would lead them to a secret card stash. Another had players seek out a secret phone number that they would call to receive a string of numbers corresponding to a hidden book in the library, where they would find their cards. These challenges were quite complex and were rewarded with enough cards to reenergize a players bank and put them ahead in the game. This could be disconcerting though, as the biweekly frequency of these challenges might have caused players to construe these scavenger hunts as a core mechanic of the game.
Aside from the scavenger hunts, the “Rabbit Hole” sequence, the initial week of Reality where the existence of the game is kept secret and players are challenged to discover it, was incredibly successful, if perhaps due in part to greater awareness of the game’s existence. Nonetheless, we had over eighty players signed up in the first day of the game, and the game’s first deal was submitted within the first hour of the Game Office’s opening.
3. QUALITY OF WORK
While power gaming and forced-pointsing did indeed happen with this season of the game, all players put substantial effort into almost all of their deals. Players experimented with unusual mediums that required substantial effort to pull off, such as animated shorts, Kickstarter Projects, drawn-on-films, and faux New Wave. Video-based deals were substantially longer, the longest reaching upwards of seventeen minutes. Projects made in the were submitted to festivals, and were screened in CNTV 101. One team developed a particularly distinct punk aesthetic, dealing with queer themes in all of their diverse work. Another player wrote a full season of full-length courtroom dramas. The most notable project to have emerged from the game is the UNI School of Bollywood Arts, a transmedia franchise taking place in an alternate universe where India has colonized Hollywood, resulting in a film school dedicated to Bollywood film. The franchise consisted of a successful crowdfunding campaign, a series bible, and a short film, created by a large team with a pronounced structure, complete with auditions, casting calls, and dedicated roles, resulting in likely the largest and most complex project to have ever emerged from the game.
4. BALANCING & NEW MECHANICS
All of Reality‘s Green Maker Cards were redesigned to accommodate special challenges that could be completed for point bonuses, incentivizing increased effort and higher quality work. This resulted in better, more complex deals that were not necessarily “thrown together”. Players had a lot of fun attempting to fulfill these optional objectives and played more competitively.
One of the most controversial new mechanics was the “Scan Card”, a mysterious card which could only be acquired by solving a puzzle. The Scan Card had a QR-code, which, if played, rolled a dice and applied a random effect to the deal it was applied to. One play may double the points of a deal or win players additional cards, other plays could destroy the Scan card, reward other players points, or delay the deal’s publication to the next week, essentially making the choice of playing the card one of high risk. Players initially played the Scan Card with gusto until Logan Austin rolled the “Self-Destruct” effect, forcing him to tear apart the card. All players used the Scan Card very conservatively thereafter.
5. MINIMAL EMBEDDED NARRATIVE
The original design of Season 3 had an underlying narrative to it, aligning it with other traditional ARGs, which would be delivered through notes left by an opponent to the Reality Committee that players would discover at the end of each puzzle sequence. This entire element of the game was cut, as interacting with embedded narrative is an aesthetic of consumption, which contradicts the game’s intended goal of promoting creation, distancing players from the game’s goal of fostering creativity and collaboration within its player base. Instead, a similar narrative arc appeared emergently as previous years players would interfere with the game, granting players overpowered cards intended to be removed from the system by putting them through unusual and difficult challenges.
Nonetheless, the embedded narrative elements survived and were included into the game enhanced player’s experiences substantially. The first element was “Vintage Cards”, cards that were used in the game’s previous decades that we found and included in the game as rewards for solving puzzles. These Vintage Cards could be played like any other game card, and alluded to the game’s history of being played by students as an underground subculture.
WHAT WENT WRONG
While the player base for Season 3 is the largest it has ever been, the drop in active players was more pronounced than we expected. The game started with a group of nearly 170 players, but dropped off substantially as the semester ramped up, going down to twenty players and ending with a core group of roughly sixteen players. While this core group was indeed prolific, it is surprising to see how drastically the number of players dropped off after the first few weeks. Substantial drop-offs have been characteristic of previous seasons of the game given the plethora of other commitments students have, ranging from fraternity commitments, to midterms, clubs, and non-game related projects, the players that do survive and remain committed and passionate about DIY-media making go on to create the game’s best content. Nonetheless, when designing future iterations of the game, Reality Game Runners should take into consideration the reasons that this phenomenon takes place and take measures to keep players engaged with playing and project-creation without compromising the game’s core aesthetics of aggressive, creative competition and self-motivated, creative agency.
“Pointsing” was a term that players coined to describe the forced integration of loosely-justified cards into deals in an attempt to maximize the score-value of an individual project or any other behavior that may be construed as “pushing the rules” of the game in order to maximize the score of a deal. While this behavior did create interesting dramatics and make for more competitive, aggressive play from other players, I am concerned about the effect that this behavior might have on other players. Richard Bartle’s categorization of players of MUDs posits that the behavior of different kinds of players in a game space can substantially affect the game experience for other players. “Power-gamers” that aggressively balance and min-max their builds and play styles can potentially overpower other players and make them feel impotent and powerless, disincentivizing their continued play given the knowledge that they could not necessarily match up points-wise against the other teams. While the negative feedback system integrated into the cards with the “depletion” mechanic reduced each card’s value with each consecutive use, this behavior was still present. One thing that could be done to address this issue is to better communicate the fact that the Reality Committee pick weekly winners in terms of both points and quality.
3. UNIMPLEMENTED MECHANICS & CONTENT
A plethora of mechanics, rules, and content was created for the game during the Spring Practicum. Only a fraction of that content made it into the final iteration of the season. Many of the cut elements reasonably improved or preserved the experience of the game, such as the removal of an embedded narrative, which would have detracted from the exploratory, self-motivated aesthetic critical to the game’s success. Nonetheless, out of oversight or lack of time and resources, we had to scale back on many things, such as the complexity of each of the puzzles. One of the game’s first puzzles involved cracking open a hidden safe to discover a secret cache of cards. This puzzle was scaled back due to time and budget constraints to feature only a suitcase and a combo-lock. The collectable “audio-diaries” alluding to the stories and experiences of past students and alumni of SCA were cut entirely, instead, we included artifacts from the game’s past: a collection of “vintage cards” from prior decades runs of the game, a grainy image of the Bullpen as it existed in the forties, a blurry photograph from last year’s Wrap Party.
Perhaps the mechanic that we most unfortunately left out was the inclusion of “weekly challenges” that players can undertake for special bonuses. Shoot a deal using only a cell-phone camera, shoot on 35mm film, collaborate with someone you’ve never worked with before. These special challenges would have shook up the game substantially and kept players on their toes, constantly experimenting and trying out new methods of media-making.
4. CHAOTIC SCHEDULING
Season 3 of Reality Ends Here was run entirely by three people with the intermittent involvement of the Reality Committee. Esteban Fajardo and I were Game Runners and Simon Wiscombe was Game Master. Esteban and I both have full eighteen-unit class schedules and are working on Advanced Game Projects, limiting our availability in the office during the week’s peak periods and ability to create complex, involving challenges that multiple groups of players can engage with. One particularly rough scheduling fiasco occurred during a “Double Points Week”, wherein the points value of all submitted deals is doubled, incentivizing players to create and submit as many projects as they can during that week. I was running playtests for an Intermediate Games Project as part of my Usability Testing Class on the Friday of that week, preventing me from being available at the Game Office on that day, forcing me to ask last year’s Game Runners to substitute for me and run justifications.
We revamped the entire Reality Ends Here website in order to streamline the process of submitting and justifying deals, and for the first few weeks of the game, the new site served its purpose admirably and effectively. But past the mid-game and escalating throughout the entirety of the late-game, the website started exhibiting serious issues. Entire submissions were lost and had to be redone again, the site would lag and stutter at the most inappropriate times, players who changed their account names found themselves with multiple accounts, each with its own score on the leaderboard, and players would find themselves inexplicably in the lead with tens of thousands of points, or suddenly lose all their points. While the site is effective and usable from the front-end, it would be important to look into improving the sites stability in the next season of Reality Ends Here.
The Reality Committee
Season 3 Game Master:
Season 3 Game Runners:
Kevin Wong and Esteban Fajardo
Season 3 Backup Game Runners:
Michael Effenberger, Will Cherry, Althea Capra
This is a reflection about my first year at game school. Its long and reflective, deal with it.
I try not to have second thoughts about entering this industry. We’re riding the wave of Ludus Florentis, the massive sea change, maybe even movement, that James Portnow predicted three years ago, a term that I’ll refer to a lot in this article.
While as a player of games, I welcome the earthquake of creativity that is shaking up the industry right now, I remain concerned about what that could mean for my career. Right now, more people than ever are entering the game industry, and the old guards of yesterday can not possibly employ all that talent that’s flooding out of game schools. Independent developers like the ones I admire seldom look to hire or expand, and the few ones that do rarely seek applicants in design. As the bar to entry lowers, the bar to be competitive inches higher.
To be competitive in this world means to make necessary sacrifices, everyone is going to give up a little bit of themselves. I personally, ended my political outspokenness and stopped distance running, two facets of myself that I thought important to who I was. In retrospect, the former won’t be missed and the latter was mooted anyway by life in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, anyone entering game school can expect to work harder than they ever have in their life. They must expect movement, and must be ready to relocate to get the necessary experience that would fulfill their goals. And challenge, those entering this industry must be ready to confront the stark reality of crunch time, demographic homogenity, limited compensation, family separation, the crossover of social and professional life, and a brief career likely lasting less than a decade.
But that’s barely an issue.
Maybe I’m being overly idealistic or something like it. To be part of this snapshot of time means that I’m part of a greater whole, and only with the combined creativity of game developers everywhere will we unlock a grand future. Being part of the microcosm of USC Games means that I am intrinsically part of this movement, and that the person I form myself to be in this moment in time will determine the direction of this movement and what the medium will become in the future.
What happened over the course of my first year at game school has sent me on a journey of my own (sorry), while I’m far from that designer that I want to be, I’ve already met strange new people from walks of life radically different from my own, I’ve traveled to the conventions and met the visionaries of the medium that I only dreamed of years ago, I’ve joined and worked on projects continually pushing the boundaries of what games could be and what they can do for the world.
And Things Got Strange.
By stepping into unknown territory, I opened myself to the risk of failure. But the finite nature of our existence, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots success or failure in any professional domain. What really matters are our relationships to the people who are closest to us with whom we share our brief journey through this wilderness. ~ Jeff Watson
I worked on the next iteration of my 2012 game of the year, Reality Ends Here. A message went out that Jeff Watson was opening up an experimental class to design future iterations of the ARG, having received a grant to expand the game that had changed many a freshman’s life, connecting them to the friends they would paint the future with. I joined the team as a narrative designer, and was in charge of designing an overarching environmental narrative to create the atmosphere of subversive, self-motivated creativity that the future of entertainment demands from its practitioners.
Most of the details about what exactly we did to next year’s iteration of Reality Ends Here has to be kept under wraps, because, hey, spoilers, but I will say that working on it reminded me of the necessary constraints that time, manpower, and budget placed on these projects. When we began designing the narrative, we had this grand vision of an epic participatory story involving immersive theater, hundreds of audio-logs, story-rich spaces, fictional characters, and a simulated conflict. We ended up cutting out most of that content to only that which would maintain our laser focus on creating the desirable atmosphere of discovery and excitement that we want to provide to our players. Film school is a rabbit hole taking those who choose to explore it to strange lands of magic and adventure, we want to reinforce that aesthetic with this narrative.
I have great hope for Reality Ends Here. We made a huge number of fundamental changes to the game and expect to see the payoff in the quality of students that partake in this school. And given my knowledge of some of the plans we have for the game, Reality Ends Here may end up making some great difference in the world as a whole. Keep an eye out for us.
And Even Stranger.
Around the afternoon of March 28th, I received a phone call from my friend Esteban.
“Hey Kevin, wanna come up to GDC with us?”
“Uh, sure, I guess…”
“Great, meet us at New/North in an hour.”
So began an impromptu road trip.
We took the Highway 1 to San Francisco, the grand road running along the California coast. To our right lay rocky, grass-covered cliffsides hundreds of feet tall, to the right, the setting sun shimmered off the gold-tinted ocean, painting the sky an incredible orange-pink. A few hours later, we were in the grassy farmlands of the Central Valley, I reclined in my seat to look out the window, and saw stars brighter than anything I’ve ever seen.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, city lights and fog would drown out any sight of the night sky. To see hundreds of glittering specks in the sky and ponder the vastness of the universe was a strangely cathartic experience that I could never have in the city.
I knew that GDC took place in San Francisco annually for several years by now, and as much as I wanted to go, even if only to meet people on the other side of development, restrictions caused by age and school would always prevent me from doing so, and frustratedly, I would watch the online coverage of the events and talks that were occurring only a few miles away. When I finally arrived to the crowded convention floor, I took a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the conference: hundreds of booths from every conceivable gaming company in the world, renowned visionaries like Ian Bogost, Robin Hunicke, and Keita Takahashi scuttled around the Moscone Center, and facial hair.
And yet, something was different. An ecstatic energy pervaded the hundreds of developers at the conference, as if they were anticipating something huge to happen.
Evolution was in the air, everywhere you’d go, there were symptoms of the nascent renaissance. You’d see it in Chris Hecker’s wordless GDC rant, you’d see it at the crowdedness of this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, you’d see it in the pervasive frustration over gender exclusivity at the major talks. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the GDC Awards, of the 14 available categories, only two were won by AAA games, and at the IGF, a poverty-simulator named Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier won Grand Prize. Being around for the Friday of the conference, I was surprised to see that the keynote speakers at the Game Career Workshop weren’t business executives for major publishers giving advice on how to get hired, but independent developers like Robert Boyd or Anna Anthropy.
The indie presence at GDC has been around for years, and while Ludus Florentis has been brewing in the waters a while now, I can’t help but think that something massive happened this year at GDC. We’ve moved down that metaphorical junction point, all that’s left to do now is to continue. All I have to say is that I’m grateful to be part of this moment.
After GDC, I returned to USC and joined a final game called Proving Grounds as a community manager. Given my experience dealing with blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages for projects in the past, I decided that I would make my most useful contributions doing community management for the project. Proving Grounds was an isometric action game focusing on emergent uses of the environment to resolve combat situations. Vines, explosive barrels, unstable floors, breakable walls, hanging lanterns and wires could all be used in combination with each other to damage enemies, and the relative weakness of the player’s avatar would force creative use of the environment, making survival a battle of wits rather than numbers, channeling almost a Shadow of the Colossus-esque aesthetic. My job, make sure that the world recognizes the game as a unique and creative project.
Proving Grounds was part of the Final Games sequence, which could be summed up as a microcosmic simulation of the game industry as a whole. Advanced Games students would assemble teams to prototype a game, build an audience, and pitch it to a panel of professors and industry professionals. Of the 17 or so games that were pitched, only seven were selected. Only by passing the extremely competitive pitch sequence would a project get greenlighted to be developed, the goal: exhibition at major festivals, creating the very best student games in the world. Two games from last year’s sequence got major attention, Core Overload and Scrapyard were picked up by Intel and exhibited at their booth at GDC 2013. The Unfinished Swan and fl0wboth owe their genesis to similar processes at USC.
All was going smoothly, I brought some great people onto the team, and each of the teams on the project worked incredibly efficiently. I connected with the community manager of thatgamecompany for advice on how to effectively create a public aesthetic around the game and effectively convey our vision to the world. Pitch day arrived, and the team’s producer and director put out a stellar presentation selling our vision for the game effectively. Things seemed to be going well, and while each of the 17 games that were pitched were unique and innovative in their own right, I was pretty optimistic in our chances of being selected.
But we weren’t chosen. The team disbanded and the project was shut down, the constituent members of the Proving Grounds team split up and joined the seven accepted projects, the process of which to join had grown substantially more competitive, requiring interviews and resumes of prospective contributors. Disappointment pervaded as I saw a number of very interesting projects like The Kingdom Cold vanish with their rejection from Final Games.
I ended up with a project codenamed Maestros, an experimental real-time strategy game directed by a number of undergraduates, the first of its kind at USC Games. I again, was brought on as a community manager, fitting for this kind of project, as Maestros sought to create a competitive scene inspired by e-sports, and effective community management would be critical to the game’s success.
Oddly enough, I spent most of this semester sick. A nasty case of pnumonia that affected me over the course of four months, which I’m still currently shaking off. I think it might be in part stress-induced, but that doesn’t matter. Antibiotics yo.
But I owe a lot to my friends for getting me through this. When I stubbornly held onto the notion that I’d be fine and my sickness would pass, they persuaded me to see a doctor. When I was too sick to leave the dorm for a week, they brought me soup and medicine. On the many weekends where I was too weak to do anything outside, they kept me company and hanged out with me. I think we blew through the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender in a number of marathonic sittings (probably one of the best animated shows I’ve ever seen). But for that, my awesome friends, I thank you all.
When I was strong enough to get out of the dorm for a weekend, I ended up at the 5D worldbuilding conference with my good friends Catherine and Esteban, a SCA-sponsored event utilizing collaborative imagination to project the future given different sociopolitical, economic, and environmental circumstances. Our job at this conference was to create a fictional world in a day, a 2020 Los Angeles informed by the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the replacement of snaking highways with miles of elevated rails, and a substantial rise in ocean levels. On our team was Jenova Chen.
Yes, that Jenova Chen. Through all the interviews I read with him, I finally got to see his leadership style in person, forceful and direct and more than willing to redirect the entire conversation towards a different, more interesting direction. Working with the wonderful Richard Lemarchand and a number of upperclassmen from IMD, we built a wildly detailed and imaginative vision of a realistic future. Certainly one of the more unusual and interesting weekends of the year.
Aside from that, I’ve found myself doing an incredible number of things with some awesome friends. I’ve competed at the 2013 Global Game Jam, watched The Who in concert at LA Live, met Nolan Bushnell -the father of digital gaming, as well as Louis Zamperini -a personal hero of mine, attended a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with the cast and director, danced to experimental interactive digital installation artwork, got an article published on Gamasutra, set out plans for an innovative new gaming channel, and unsuccessfully attempted to crash a virtual world’s economy.
Maybe this is the best time in history to enter gaming. A confluence of bold new ideas, and a consumer base hungry for something different welcomes an incredible disruption to preconceived notions of what the game industry represents. The big ships of today are beginning to reach over to academia, game jam, and the indie communities, indicating that having the most open, accessible platform will determine the outcome of the next console cycle, which will mean only incredible good for our medium. Being part of an incredible community at USC Games, I live amongst the friends, mentors, and infections energy that will enact that change we wish to see in the world.
Richard Lemarchand referred to our present moment as a “ludic renaissance” at a division meeting. Self-centered concerns about this career aside, I can’t wait to see the outcome of this chapter in history.
I’ve been doing games a lot recently. A lot of them are good, some of them are bad. A lot of them are digital console games, others are not.
First up was The Walking Dead, this is a narrative point and click adventure game and one of the most surprisingly amazing things I’ve played in recent memory.
The point-and-click adventure game is hard to understand as a game designer due to its lack of emergence. When I work with games, I try to design systems that allow for players to develop skills within systems of interesting rules that are conducive to meaningful play, in other words, one can be good at a game. It means something to be good at a shooter, and it means something to be good at a platformer or a fighting game. What then does it mean to be good at a point-and-click adventure game? After all, success at this kind of game amounts to little more than rehearsing a predetermined set of actions until players reach the end. Pick up that, give it to him, push that, talk to him. If the point-and-click adventure game allows for such little player choice within its mechanics, why then is The Walking Dead so damn compelling?
Maybe its because narrative is so crucial to the player’s enjoyment of this kind of game. Rules of Play defines something called cognitive interactivity, which is “the psychological, emotional, and intellectual participation between a person and a system”. The framed narrative of the point-and-click adventure game imbues the predetermined set of actions needed to progress with meaning. Every puzzle we solve by combining and using objects in the game world is woven with our emotional investment in the characters of the game.
Which makes The Walking Dead a narrative tour-de-force unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a game. Yes, The Walking Dead features only rudimentary dialogue trees and simplistic puzzles. Why the hell then was I moved to tears at the end?
Its because The Walking Dead is realistic with its narrative situations, while dialogue trees in other games provide only binary decisions with clear-cut notions of good and evil, and tie these decisions into mechanics by rewarding or punishing them accordingly, The Walking Dead does no such thing. All important narrative decisions have clearly negative consequences, and are timed, imbuing each of its five episodes with a dramatic tension unseen in the best of games. Making moral decisions becomes not a question of what’s right and wrong, but rather a question of who doesn’t get hurt.
The Walking Dead has players leading a band of survivors on an adventure to escape a zombie-infested Georgia while tasked with protecting the life of a little girl named Clementine. Moral decisions come down to making choices about what kind of leader one wants to be: will you try to be idealistic and inspirational or calculating with the distribution of the party’s extremely limited resources? Will you be able to put aside emotional prejudices in the name of fairness even when members of your group threaten to subvert the integrity of the entire party? Moral questions change from questions of good and evil to decisions about who doesn’t get hurt. Your choices aren’t accompanied by fanfare. No paragon or renegade points are rewarded, karma isn’t gained or lost, the game simply takes note of your decision, nods stoically, and adjusts the narrative accordingly.
And how invested in the narrative you’ll be. The Walking Dead is a taxing game, not on the player’s cognitive functions (the game’s puzzles are simple), but rather on their emotional capacity. By the end of Lee and Clementine’s adventure, I was exhausted and tired from buffet of difficult narrative decisions and the jagged road of betrayals, confused motivations, and sacrificial redemptions. Even if I was simply enacting a scripted set of actions to get to the end of the game, I was emotionally invested in everything that I did in that game.
So what else did I play? Well for one, Super Hexagon represents probably the purest manifestation of the action game that I’ve seen in a while. Its short play sessions are perfect for casual play, and I find myself repeatedly playing the game over and over again, eschewing much more sophisticated play. I often myself tired after long days and unable to muster the effort to consume a big new AAA experience, Super Hexagon is a natural go-to game when I’m afflicted with this apathy.
I also had to play through Bioshock,The Binding of Isaac, and Frozen Synapse for my introductory game studies class. Unlike how I’d play other games, I focused on “reading” these games using the Nick Montfort model of game analysis. Its a cool, formalized and academic model for understanding video games at a deeper level. Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this generation, and having the opportunity to replay it, and study it at a deeper level, was a pleasant surprise. Returning to the game after having a deeper knowledge of the economic and philosophical ideas going into the game made the game’s social commentary all the more interesting. The Binding of Isaac was a interesting rouge like that incorporated elements of shooters, which would probably be fantastic once I get bored of FTL. Frozen Synapse plays like a Super Hexagon for a strategy game, easy to pick up and play in those moments of apathy.
And there’s The Unfinished Swan. I’ve been making a concentrated effort to play more of IMD’s (or IMGD, or thatgameschool’s) games. The Unfinished Swan was an adorable first-person puzzle game with a brilliantly pronounced visual style, a telling of a cute children’s story, and made interactive. Its video-game comfort food, a game that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and loved inside. Upon discovering more of the unfinished kingdom, or seeing a cool new gameplay mechanic be introduced, I found myself grinning gleefully. Try it out, especially if you enjoyed Journey.
I most recently began playing Botanicula, its also adorable and will make you squee with joy. Great use of sound in that game.
I want to try out something new with this post. I have never posted highly personal stuff about my life on any of my sites. While I started with a professional vision for this blog, I spontaneously felt the need to break from intended purpose and write about my first semester at the USC Interactive Media Division. This post may or may not be successful in achieving its goal, make what you want of it.
It was around 3 PM on March 29th, 2012.
I was in my Honors Physics class working on a crappy egg-drop contraption. Will Campbell, student body president, who was supposed to be in the library for his free period, comes in uninvited and says “Kevin, you should probably check your Facebook”.
I assumed that it was probably some embarrassing status or picture that I was mistakenly tagged in, no big deal and certainly not worth dragging my laptop out of its case to check. Against better reason, I did. It was a wall-write from my brother, “you got accepted to USC game program! congrats! its like getting into the hunger games!”
What… the… hell… happened…
I knew that I wanted to go to USC’s Interactive Media Division more than anything else in the world, I would be satisfied going to no other school.
I knew that it was the most competitive game design program in the world and, having heard that only fifteen students were admitted a year, I was doubtful of my chances. While I invested the most work into my USC application, years of middling grades and a passion for nothing else but games and cross country made me believe that the application was nothing but a throwaway, a one-in-a-million chance thing I was doing just for fun. But somehow, through some alignment of fate, I found myself at the doorstep of a dream that I had sought for the last two years.
I went to a small school, and rumors and stories spread like wildfire. That week, I think I was congratulated by practically everyone at my high school. “Shit man, you’re on your way to great things.” one guy said, giving me a strong pat on my back. “Dude, that’s beyond words.” said another, “Congrats!”, “Congratulations Kevin!” shouted a throng of girls as they passed me by.
For a good while, I sat on cloud nine. It took some time for me to finally believe that what I was feeling was real. When reality hit me, it hit forcefully.
I got good financial aid from my other schools. Rochester Institute of Technology offered me a $12000 a year scholarship, Drexel, $15000, Renasselaer Polytechnic, $15600. I received nothing from USC. To go to USC would be to turn down up to $64000 in awards and aid. I questioned myself strongly, was joining IMD worth it? Would I be doing my family a huge disservice by placing upon them a great financial burden? An unprecedented opportunity sat before me, but to take it, I would have had to make a sacrifice.
Going against what reason told me, I took the plunge. I registered, submitted my deposit and let fate take its course.
My metaphysical and religious beliefs are complicated to the point that even I don’t understand them. I’m not entirely sure if I believe or don’t believe in there being anything “out there”. But since I took this path, I have detected some subtle change in how I perceive the world around me. Its hard to qualify exactly, but I am somehow more optimistic, more grateful of those around me and what they’ve brought to my life, more attentive to the subtle impacts that my choices have on the world around me. Maybe there’s some force out there that has placed good things and bad things in my life that have led me to where I am now. Maybe I was destined for this. Whatever it is, its beyond my comprehension.
SHAKING OFF STAGNATION
Fast forward several months, Subtle Stone, a game studio I founded, dissolves, Dark Deception fails, my (awesome) codeveloper Bard returns to Norway to become a priest, I suffer through a lazy summer and watch my creativity atrophy.
August 23rd arrives, I’ve been waiting for this day for a while and have been eager to meet the people of the division, hosting a movie night to watch Indie Game in my apartment. I was introduced to the Reality Ends Here alternate reality game and had a good
time creating small interactive and visual projects, including one screenplay, two nondigital games, and two short films.
Yet, I was despondent. I needed to be working on something big. Dark Deception gave me something to live for in the last months of high school, it gave me purpose. I believed it was the very foundation of my soul and identity in high-school, I was “the guy behind Dark Deception”, I dedicated everything I had to the project and named it in my head as “my life’s purpose”. The inevitable failure of the project shook me to my core, and for a while, I felt my time at USC was purposeless. I needed Subtle Stone. I was frustrated and spent copious amounts of time dreaming of the day that the old team would be reunited and Dark Deception reborn. For the first seven or so weeks I was afflicted with this dispassion.
I like books, I have a bunch of them stacked high on my dorm room table. Among them was my high-school yearbook. One day, I picked it up for a read, having not done so before. People had left many warm messages of gratitude and affection in it, and knowing these people, I knew that those messages were sincere. Then I noticed something, while there were messages commending me for courage, creativity, and drive, not one mentioned Subtle Stone or Dark Deception. The love that I received from my family and friends was not centered around what I did, but who I was. My narrow-sighted preoccupation over Dark Deception had somehow warped my perception of the world around me.
It was a realization that hit with gravity and sank in deep: Subtle Stone was not my fate. I would probably never make Dark Deception, and it wasn’t worth sacrificing my humanity to create. Maybe letting go of a dream that has consumed you whole isn’t such a bad thing. I was not destined to be Subtle Stone, I was destined to live as a member of IMD.
Maybe judging the success of my existence in this world on basis of the success of Dark Deception was misguided from the start. Gatsby paid a harsh price for living for a single dream, maybe I averted the same fate.
A few days later, my opportunity to do something exciting came. We have this secret
Facebook group for IMD students called “The Settlers of CTIN” (CTIN being the course prefix for Interactive Media classes), and one day, in the middle of 400, a group message sparks within the group. I’m not the only itching to create something it turned out, the other people in the program were thirsting to create a game. We decided to meet together and we assembled a great team. We ended up trying to assemble a cooperative first-person stealth game built in Unity. While our meetings have been somewhat disjointed due to other commitments by team members, I have set my personal goal for this project to create a team that sticks together for years and lasts beyond college.
There’s a certain, palpable giddiness about the people of IMD that bleeds forth into everything they do. These people love what they do. They know their purpose in life and live their dreams with pride.
There’s Esteban Fajardo, whose giddy excitement about games inspires us all. There’s Catherine Fox, whose courageous honesty exhibits a quiet strength. And Chloe Lister, whose snarky and abrasive sense of humor has never failed to make me laugh. Trevor Dietz is practically a fountainhead of awesome ideas. There are still many others in this great group of people that I wish to connect more with, and I am truly honored to work amongst them. Everyone I’ve met here has friggin’ amazing taste in games and pop culture, and in the short time I’ve spent here, I’ve been introduced to awesome things such as Firefly, Cards Against Humanity, Dungeons & Dragons, Jak & Daxter, Frog Fractions, alternate reality games, Super Hexagon, the list goes on.
One thing that practically everyone I’ve met from IMD has in common is a veneration of Journey. Maybe its because thatgamecompany is comprised mostly out of IMD alumni, but for one reason or another, this game has touched each of us spiritually and has united us around a common emotional experience. For us, it provided an example of what we could potentially do with our work in games: each of us had the potential to create games that could have remarkable positive impact on our players.
And then there was Indiecade, oh wow, a lot happened there. There, I met such inspirational people like John Romero, Brenda Braithwaithe, and the entire cast of Indie Game: The Movie, as well as Davey Wredren and some old friends from UC Santa Cruz. I’m just gonna share a highlight.
So I went to Indiecade as a volunteer, and I was assigned to the Sony tent to work as a bouncer, sending people who didn’t have passes off on their merry way. All was going well and I did not need to bounce very many people. Then a young, Asian man in a sky-blue jacket came up to the tent.
“Excuse me sir, do you have a pass for this event?”
“um, I’m just here to sign books.” he said,
Then an electrifying realization surged through my body.
“Oh…” I said, “um, by any chance are you Jenova Chen?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, “I actually have to move my car right now…”
and with that, he left. I’ve been a fan of Jenova’s work for years now and have been itching to meet him for a long time. I’ve never read an interview of his that I didn’t like and was inspired by his studio’s dream, so much that I wrote about his work in my application essay. Most of the people in the film school dreamed of meeting inspirational figures like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or Robert Zemeckis. I had met my inspirational figure, and I bounced him.
I use Gmail’s Priority Inbox, and sometimes miss out on important emails when they get forwarded into the wrong folder. Before he left, I sent my old codeveloper Bard an email containing copy of the Humble Indie Bundle 5 and a kind message thanking him for his work and what a honor it was to work with him. He responded to my message, but it got forwarded to the wrong inbox, and as a result, I was not able to read it until a few weeks ago when I was doing a periodic cleanup.
Thank you so incredibly much for having me on your team this year! It has been an honor working with a pioneer like yourself, and I have learned so much that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise… I truly believe that you will find amazing contacts your next four years that you can work with to increase your knowledge and drive for video games. I will always be proud of the fact that I have worked by your side. It has been an incredible adventure. If you ever lose your belief in yourself, you should know that I won’t: you are exactly what this world needs!
God bless you!
Bard Magnus Soedal
I’m probably never going to work with Subtle Stone again and Dark Deception might never come to fruition, but I’m totally okay with that. Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching that “Those who rush ahead don’t get very far. Those why try to outshine others dim their own light. Those who call themselves righteous can’t know how wrong they are. Those who boast of their accomplishments achieve nothing.” I guess that’s one thing that I’ve learned the full value of through my experience this semester.
My first semester with IMD had ended just a few hours ago when I started writing this post, and life is hopeful. The “One Street Corner” project that I did for the Reality Ends Here ARG with Caroline, a good friend of mine from Production, had just won the award for “Most Inspirational”. My time has come, these will be the best years of my life, and with a killer group of friends tied together by a common destiny, I find myself on the first steps of another great journey.
I usually do a “Year in Review” post each year around Christmas Eve where I reflect on games that I have played and name a personal game of the year. In celebration of the successful funding of LA Game Space, I am publishing this blog post early.
My taste in gaming has changed substantially over the past year, I am no longer satisfied by epic narrative experiences and find myself seeking out brief, esoteric, and quirky interactive experiences that I’ll never forget. On my previous site, I wrote “Year in Review” posts where I would reflect and wax poetic on games that I’ve played and pick out a game as my personal game of the year. This year’s post will be a little different as it will include more nondigital and alternate reality games, giving us a broader range of experiences to discuss. My criteria for selecting games has also changed, and the games that I am about to discuss don’t necessarily fall under the umbrella of “fun”, but under that of “impactful”.
Games That I’ve Played
For the sake of readability, I won’t write about the games I played at the Global Game Jam, but will just say that Chelsea Howe’s To What End is totally worth the five minutes it takes to play.
I started the year off by playing both the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Both games were smartly done. While I felt that Skyward Sword suffered from a poorly paced introduction and midsection, I took note that the Impressionistic art style suited the spirit of the series perfectly and thatthe game’s motion controls finally made good on Nintendo’s original promise to create a game based around true 1:1 motion swordplay, and in many ways, it was the best motion-controlled traditional game that I’ve ever played. Skyrim was brilliant in it inspiring breadth, while narratively it sucked and there were a great many things that broke my immersion into it’s fantastic world, I was consistently driven to adventure for eighty hours with my Nord character Pixels. Alas, I eventually got bored raiding dungeons and hunting for improved loot, and went on a murderous rampage in Riften leaving much of the town’s population in pieces.
Then Journey entered my life.
This is the part where I sit at my keyboard and stare at my screen, not quite knowing what to put down to post. In many ways, Journey has become an important McGuffin in my life. I first played it days before I was accepted into USC’s Interactive Media Division and my life changed forever, I discussed it at length with my codevelopers at Subtle Stone before we separated for good, I played it to meditate before I left for college, and when I arrived at IMD, I discovered that it touched and inspired the souls of the colleagues that I was about to share my career with. Somehow, we had gathered around Journey collectively as an experience that had shaped, defined, and moved our infantile career in gaming.
But yes, Journey was something special. It touched my soul and shook my very being by speaking in a universal language transcendent of cultural boundaries. Play it.
After Journey I played Bastion. If I could find a word to describe this game, it would be luscious. Its rich coloration and enthralling music captivated me, its fluid combat and simple character customization was fun as hell. Most intriguing was Bastion’s narrator, Rucks, whose grizzled voice is as memorable to me as Morgan Freeman’s or Liam Neeson’s. His narration contributed much to Bastion’s emotional overtone, and I found myself invested in the story and found the ending to be clever in its self-reflexivity.
Up next was Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP. I played this game on my laptop, and missed out on a lot of the tablet & touch exclusive features. While I didn’t quite like the game’s puzzles and found them at times illogical and strange, its aesthetics and ambitions appealed to me. Give this game a try if you’re into the esoteric.
I liked Dear Esther, and you have every right to call me pretentious, but you know that that’s not true. It didn’t strike me that the island was a manifestation of the protagonist’s subconscious until the very end, but that made the second playthrough much sweeter. It reminded me much of Inception, it’s a brainy game that will make you think and dig deep into your intellect.
Itching for a shooter, I downloaded Crysis to my Playstation 3 and enjoyed how the first few levels encouraged creative ways to deal with combat situations. It was unique, fun, and reminiscent of the original Far Cry, one of my favorite shooters out there. Alas, when aliens were introduced, the game became far more generic, linear, and unfun.
I Arrive at USC & Meet IMD
IMD 2016, The Settlers of CTIN, The Unnamed Game Development Group, The Indie Circlejerk. I have met no group of people quite like my colleagues in my undergraduate class at the USC Interactive Media Division. Their drive, ability, initiative, creativity, kind-heartedness, and courage are above and beyond anything I’ve ever seen, they’re both good as developers, but even better as people. It is both an honor and a joy to work amongst them for these short few years, if not for the rest of my career. They’ve already done a lot by introducing me to a few games, surprisingly, nondigital ones.
Two of the first folks I met from IMD got me into Dungeons and Dragons, having loved computer role-playing games like KOTOR, Fallout, and Chrono Trigger, it was necessary to discover where these games got their roots. When I signed up to join them one Friday night for DnD, I had no idea what I was getting into. The game’s ability to collectively pool the imaginations of a diverse group of people, bond them closely together, and leave them with inside jokes galore is astounding. I was a schizophrenic, dark-skinned rogue named Pixels with long purple hair and a goatee, and the situations that I have plunged my party into will stay with me for some while. Situations like rolling a critical miss on a disarm device check and nearly killing half my party. This game has brought together my adventuring party, and we’ve played many things together outside of DnD, like Uncharted 3 and the Jak & Daxter trilogy.
Speaking of which, what was the deal with that ship scene in Uncharted 3? C’mon, seriously.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced me to Cards Against Humanity, a party game for horrible, horrible people. That game has the unique ability to reveal facets of a person’s personality that you would have never expected. Its good fun and consistently hilarious.
Shortly after, a friend introduced me to this digital web game called Frog Fractions,which taught me… things… Its best that I don’t talk about it. Play it, you’re never going to forget it.
I also got to replay the Mass Effect trilogy as part of a charity speedrun. Bad stuff happened, Garrus shouldn’t be tech expert and Miranda is in no shape to save the galaxy alone.
Reality Ends Here
The most pervasive game in my life at USC was this alternate-reality game that Jeff, Tracy, and Simon dreamed up called “Reality Ends Here”, of which the entirety of the first semester of Freshmen year is based around. It was introduced to us minutes after we met each other in the courtyard of SCA with a mysterious message coded into fortune cookies that we received at our lunch leading us to a mysterious URL on the web. After a bit of snooping around, we were led to a secret unlabeled room in the School of Cinematic Arts called the “Game Office”. We were given our cards and were set off on our own to create things. Less than 24 hours after the Dean of SCA welcomed us to the school, I found myself operating an expensive DSLR video-rig for our very first project.
I formed an impromptu team and for a brief month, was obsessed with competing with other groups to win each week by producing high-scoring media. We won two weeks in a row, our reward experiences: a tour of Jim Henson studios by Transformer’s producer Don Murphy, and an advance viewing of Gates McFadden’s (Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: TNG) new play. But most rewarding was the experience of playing the game itself, the anarchic and chaotic spirit of running around the residence halls with expensive camera equipment and a script that we wrote in a few hours has been an unforgettable experience.
Reality Ends Here won the renowned Impact Award at IndieCade for showing the most potential for games to do social good and change some facet of society. G4TV did an excellent piece on the ARG:
ARG? Card Game? Film Project? It’s all of that and more. Reality Ends Here started out as a project for USC freshmen looking to do something a little different. As the story goes, the Reality Committee will be keeping an eye on you and judging how you play the game. Players work in teams as they put together groups of cards that they receive in a packet. Cards combine to develop an idea that the students need to make happen either through film, animation, or game. Cards tell you what kind of story and what will appear in said story. Cards add points to your project, but make it more challenging with each additional item you need to include. You make it and send it in.
More than just the motto for the USC School, Reality Ends Here gave freshmen an education that extended far outside their classroom. Contestants got to meet special mentors and got their “missions” viewed by some of the top players in the business. For some it might look like a game, Reality Ends Here showed a handful of students the beginning of a wonderful life.
I fell out of the game for a good two months when life got in the way, but I do have a wonderful concluding piece for my participation in this project, and for many of the people who dedicated much of their first semester to the game, it has been a life-changing experience that truly set off their careers in film in an epic way. Consider for one the Xander Legacy team, whose project The Sci-Fi Supercut managed to find its way onto the front page of Wired. The team has since decided to reconstitute itself into its own production company.
Game of the Year
Naming a game of the year is difficult this year, simply because I have decided to encompass nondigital games into the mix, diversifying the already wide range of experiences that I could have through games. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of the procedurally generated story and the simple fun that could come out of collectivized imagination. Journey exists in my life as both a mysterious symbol that has the tendency of showing up at significant times and a game showcasing the potential of video games to make us better, more loving people. Reality Ends Here made my first-semester of college truly one-of-a-kind.
What is different about this year’s batch of GOTY nominees is that each of them has rubbed off on me and has changed how I live in some small way. I’m not judging these games purely on their fun, but on their overall impact on me. Dungeons & Dragons showed me the original promise of role-playing games, the potential of collaborative storytelling, and introduced me to a valuable group of people that I expect to spend time with in the foreseeable future. Journey transcended the emotional ambitions of most games and touched my spirit in a way that I would have never expected from a piece of art. Reality Ends Herereenergized a creative side of me that atrophied over the summer and introduced me to some incredible collaborators at USC that I wish to work with for much of my life. To choose one of these games would shirk not only the other games that I have nominated, but the incredible people that were involved in my experiences with that game and impacted my life in some way, shape, or form. Playing these games with other people and gathering around the significance of these games in our worlds made these games great, and the people that I have met and shared this chapter of my life with through these games have been impactful on me.
To that extent, I must say that, with great apologies to both my adventuring party and the people of my IMD class, Reality Ends Here stands boldly as my personal game of the year. Wearing its dream on its sleeve, it exists as a shining example of how pervasive games can alter our perception of reality and change how players connect, compete, and interact with each other, fundamentally changing how we go about our everyday lives at SCA. Ideas come randomly and through the right team-chemistry, become realized in amazing ways. It is a unique experience and a highly sophisticated ARG that has changed the lives of its most dedicated players in huge ways. With escalating interest in pervasive and ARGs amongst the public, Reality Ends Here can set off a shockwave of positive social change throughout the world.