My Favorite Games of the 7th Generation (Part 1)

And that’s a wrap, the atypically-long seventh console cycle has concluded. And what a turbulent trip it was between the Autumns of 2006 and 2013.

In these seven years, we’ve seen massive consolidation within the AAA sector of industry, marked by a wave of studio closures and layoffs, resulting in the rise of the indie game and the burnout of trends such as plastic instruments. This change has fundamentally altered the way the gaming industry works from its core, the influx of ex-AAA developers and game school graduates and their experimental ideas has led to the flourishing of a new avant-garde facet to gaming. The explosion of casual gaming with the Wii and iOS has put to death the outdated, stereotyped notion of the “gamer” as the poorly socialized, unhygienic, teenage boy, and has connected players of games into a wide and all-welcoming community of play.

Prior to this console cycle, IndieCade did not exist as it does today
Prior to this console cycle, IndieCade did not exist as it does today

And as a maker of games, this cycle is particularly interesting since it marks the point in which I crossed the threshold demarcating the separation between player and designer. This is a phenomenon that happens to artists from any medium: you see the ingredients that go into the sausage, and never see or enjoy it in the same way again.

I can no longer “play” games, but rather I study them, deconstruct their systems, interconnected rings of feedback loops, intricately detailed and shaded texture bakes, systems of representation meaningful under only the right cognitive frame, systems of metacommunication, narrative delivery, metacommentary, the achievement of a win-state as an ideal condition that could be dangerously exploited to discourage playful experimentation within a possibility space. I can no longer enter that same magical state of investment that I experienced playing through the seminal Metroid Prime and can only appreciate and acknowledge the care and consideration poured into a game.

Don’t call any of these “The Citizen Kane of Video Games”

To this extent, this list is incomplete and disjointed, as they represent two radically different points of view that I held in that seven year period. One is that wide-eyed sense of wonderment, the young teenager, discovering the joy of movement in Super Mario Galaxy and dancing through its cosmic obstacle courses. The other is that of the designer, studying The Last of Us and how its resource-management systems created a suffocating sense of disempowerment apropos to its post-apocalyptic narrative. It wasn’t easy choosing these twelve games, and I had to put aside great games like Minecraft, The Unfinished Swan, and Zelda: Skyward Sword, but here are those games that impacted my life, inspired me, and changed me in some significant way. None of these games are perfect, and many of them are glaringly flawed, but these are important because they’re important to me personally. 

12. Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum was the first HD game that I had ever played, the first game I played on my Playstation 3, and was the best Metroid game that I played this generation. Structurally, the game revolves around traversing through a massive 3D environment. Players are limited in their mobility and access at the start of the game, and must explore the environment to acquire suit upgrades that would give them new methods of traversal, allowing them to access new areas that held ever more secrets, upgrades, and enemies. Structurally, its a game that’s easy to get lost in, every new item opens up a wide array of possibilities for exploration and combat.

Batman: Arkham Asylum was special because it was a paragon of adaptation.

And to speak of Arkham Asylum‘s combat is to do it an immense injustice. Hand-to-hand combat animates beautifully, turning fights against anonymous grunts into beautiful, brutal, dances of muscle, cape, and concrete. The simplistic, four-button system is simple to learn, but possesses a rhythmic flow between punches, stuns, dodges, and counters that make the system exciting to engage with. And those mechanics are only available if the player chooses to engage with enemies in that way: stealth is just as engaging and empowering system as brawling. Between hiding on gargoyles, pouncing on enemies, setting up explosive traps, or pulling them into air ducts by distracting them with a batarang, acting as a silent predator is as empowering as you’d expect it to be. The visible terror that enemies exhibit feeds a visceral, sadistic thrill seen only in other, more morally problematic games. These mechanics all lend the game an authenticity to the source material unseen in myriad other licensed games.

And that’s to say nothing of Arkham Asylum’s representational elements. Arkham Asylum is a veritable encyclopedia of Batman lore, and villains from Zsasz to Scarecrow will confront Batman. The Riddler also brings a hidden-object aspect to the game, challenging Batman to find an object in each room of the facility that relates to some of the most obscure Batman lore out there. Kevin Conroy and the ubiquitous Mark Hamill, who voiced Batman and the Joker in Justice League and the 1990s animated series, lend their talent to the game. Simply put, Arkham Asylum works well as an paragon of adaptation, effortlessly translating the verbs, nouns, and adjectives of Batman’s print and screen presence to an interactive medium.

11. Team Fortress 2

One thing that’s problematic when designing co-operative or team-based games is making each player feel like his/her contributions matter to the team. If a player feels useless, or worse, a liability to the team, then a game is poorly balanced and heavily problematic. This is a huge issue facing Dungeon Masters of Dungeons & Dragons games, as rule-exploiting power-gamers can easily ruin the game for players less interested in the simulation of combat, reducing their feeling of agency and potency. Shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield suffer from this issue too, as negative feedback systems reward the other team for getting kills, thereby placing a large, team-affecting punishment for death. To this extent, many competitive team-based games fail at this aspect of design, and end up creating hostile communities that leave newbies no place to start.

Team Fortress 2 was special because it possessed a sense of unity and cooperation unique amongst other shooters.

This isn’t a problem for Team Fortress 2 however, and just by simply playing their role in the battlefield, even at an adequate level, players feel like they’re making important, game-changing contributions to the success of their team. This all stems from the design of Team Fortress 2′s nine player classes, their movement speed, weapons, and skills effectively restrict their abilities to only one mode of play, lending each class a design affordance that makes their particular role on a team obvious. Play as the Pyro and your role on the team is made immediately obvious from his small size, short-ranged splash attack, and the tendency of other players to back away from him. Conversely, the Spy’s abilities and weapons restrict his efficacy to stealth, placing in his hands the daunting task of sneaking behind enemy lines and breaking their defensive strategies. The interplay of these diverse classes create an incredibly deep and accessible tactical shooter, creating an unparalleled sense of unity and cohesion during play, culminating in the cathartic thrill of victory, feeling satisfied with the knowledge that you played an integral part in achieving that win.

10. Mass Effect 2

Star Wars and Star Trek came before my time, and I missed Firefly when it was originally aired, so growing up, I had no epic space-opera to anoint as part of my upbringing, but Mass Effect works as a nice substitute. Simultaneously a pastiche of every beloved science fiction franchise ever and a wildly original, extremely imaginative series of its own, Mass Effect welcomed me into an intricately textured and wonderfully flavorful universe filled with strange creatures and memorable worlds, which served as the ideal setting for a traditional monomythic adventure.

Mass Effect 2 was special because it was simultaneously giddily-imaginative, and a pastiche of every great science fiction adventure before it.

There’s a race of colossal aliens called the Reapers who visit the Milky Way every 50,000 years, annihilating all sentient life on their way. Commander Shepard discovers their existence in a vision that she had while examining an ancient artifact on Eden Prime, and must convince the Council of their existence. On the way, her ship is destroyed by a massive, insectoid ship but she is saved by the Human Supremacist organization Cerberus, and sent to explore the galaxy gathering allies to discover the secrets of that mysterious ship and its occupants. This compelling premise is made interesting by the diverse range of characters that Shepard comes across on her journey. While not every one may be inherently likable, it is impossible to come away from an interaction with a character without having formed a solid opinion about them.

As Shepard expands her crew, she must deal with racial and ideological conflicts amongst them, testing the player’s leadership and decision-making skills. The core mechanic of the Mass Effect games is talking, which is only fun when deployed with interesting characters, and Mass Effect 2 delivers them in droves. Who can forget Garrus’s darkly justified vigilantism, or how under Mordin’s hyperactive, geeky exterior lived guilty conscience over letting genocide happen. In Mass Effect 2, player’s behavior affects characters and changes them fundamentally, encouraging them to grow or change through one’s leadership style allows for some of the most engaging role-playing seen this generation.  

9. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

When the player escapes his execution and leaves the opening dungeon in Skyrim, he is hit with the jarring realization of the sheer enormity of the game’s possibility space. While the game privileges violent play styles with a substantial amount of combat mechanics and equipment, the variety of hats the player can wear with those core mechanics makes for very engaging role-playing. With the right character builds, Skyrim can be anything from a stealth game about infiltrating wealthy houses and making off with valuable loot to sell to the poor, to a Harvest Moon-esque farming simulator, to a mountain-climbing action game. While the game is indeed content heavy in terms of potential questlines and scripted set-pieces, Skyrim‘s rules create a wide-open sandbox for playful experimentation and exploration.

Skyrim was special because its structure promoted playful experimentation and exploration within its virtual space.

The vastness of the possibility space make Skyrim the perfect game of abnegation. For the past year, Skyrim has been my go-to game for times when I’m too sick or tired to invest myself in anything more complex. Raid a dungeon, hunt some monsters, fight crime or cause it, explore the sandbox and play with its rules and constraints for as long or short a time as you want. Whatever you do, you’ll probably discover something interesting to have fun with, like cabbages.

8. Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. is a social ritual, to be performed every other Friday afternoon in the company of new friends. Observe how they play, and learn something about that person: “Where did he play this game before?”, “What kind of people did he play this game with?”, “Were they his friends? Are they still now?”, “What did they teach him? How may he be similar or different to me?”.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl was special because it was universally adored and understood by nearly everyone I met.

I’ve met gamers from places as diverse as Colorado to Ecuador, and almost all of them have played Super Smash Bros, imparting their distinct choices of moves, characters, and strategies into every match I’ve shared with them. “Why is my opponent playing so aggressively as Ike? Did the friends that he played with back home always resort to the same craven defensive tactics?” “Why does this player insist on spamming bombs as Link? Why would he so cowardly attack from afar whilst avoiding actual confrontation?” The language and play of this game is almost universal, and the context in which Super Smash Bros. is played at home informs people’s playstyles, and the exchange of blows between players from different families, different communities, and different cultures exhibits the sheer diversity of mentalities that players bring into Smash Bros.‘s magic circle, and acts as a testament to the depth contained in this simple, cartoony party game.

6. World of Goo

The first thing I found remarkable about World of Goo was the story behind it. Two guys made this game! They barely had any funding! Their office was whatever free wi-fi coffeeshop they’d walk into that day! All of a sudden, video games, these monolithic electronic products made by megalithic corporations you’d hear about in the Wall Street Journal, had indies. 

To my 14-year old mind at the time, the thought was mind-boggling: people made games. These weren’t companies with knowledge of the arcane, recondite, secrets of the Wii and a relationship with Nintendo arranged by armies of lawyers, but people, individuals that I could become like. If they could make a successful game on their own, what was there to stop me from doing the same? Soon afterwards, I began researching. I read articles, books, postmortems, reviews, anything I could get my hands on, and in time, I began writing. I started doing reviews and opinion pieces on my own blog and the school newspaper about games, and in a little corner of my computer, I began writing and sketching together documents and maps for my own game.

World of Goo was special because it taught me that anyone could make games.

And that’s to speak only of its development story and the impact it had on me as a person. World of Goo is a fantastic puzzle game with a cute, yet, forlorn and lonely aesthetic. Players construct structures out of goo balls in an attempt to bridge one part of the level to the other, while having enough goo balls left to complete the level and its OCD objective. The physics-based mechanics encourage experimentation with the properties of each kind of goo ball, and combining them in creative ways creates a Portal-like sense of trial-and-error characteristic of the very best linear puzzle games.

Come back again tomorrow for the rest of the list.

EDIT: Wrote up a draft of the post, Evernote account broke, lost all that text. Post will be delayed. Come back next week. 

How to Make a Good Firefly Video Game

So, after years in and out of development hell, a Firefly video game might exist.

Announced under the radar of Comic-Con, this Firefly game will be a “Social-MMO” for Android and iOS.

I’m as much a fan of Joss Whedon’s work as anyone else, and I’d jump at the opportunity to spend more time with the oft-dysfunctional crew of the Serenity, but count me surprised and somewhat cynical of the game. Right now, news of this project is yet another reminder of the main problem I have with licensed games: the mechanics of these games aren’t designed to promote the same aesthetics as that of the source material. Games are systems of rules and mechanics designed to create a certain emotional state, and distilling Firefly’s complex core appeal to a game system is very difficult. Even if the Firefly game looks and sounds like Firefly, it’ll utterly fail its audience if it doesn’t feel like Firefly. 

Many of the licensed games that fail do so because they are dishonest to the source material from a mechanical standpoint. Consider the awful Harry Potter shooter: the Harry Potter books and films were about the Campbellian Hero’s Journey and a child’s coming of age in an increasingly dark world. While Harry does indeed fight Death Eaters in the source material, the series is fundamentally not about fighting, Harry Potter is about growing up, and the shooter’s mechanics do nothing to promote that core theme. While some superficial worldbuilding elements do exist, like wands, apparition, and expelliarmus, misinterpreting Harry Potter as a high-octane action game exemplifies ludonarrative dissonance.

No matter how much it looks like Harry Potter, this isn’t Harry Potter.

Same goes with Ghostbusters, while the game’s sound and graphics were honest to the original film, the game’s design wasn’t. Ghostbusters was about a group of academic expatriates going into business; a goofy rags-to-riches story, the Ghostbusters start from nothing and eventually grow to become  nationally famous and save the world, all whilst fighting off clumsy government regulation. Ghostbusters the game forgoes the film’s core theme of small-time entrepreneurship to focus solely on the singular act of wrangling down and capturing a ghost. While this is definitely something the Ghostbusters do, it is absolutely not the reason why people love Ghostbusters. People love Ghostbusters for its situational comedy, goofy characters, and charming narrative about small-business, not for the heart-pounding excitement of wrangling down a poltergeist.

Which brings us to the Firefly MMO. When pitching the show, Joss Whedon described it as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”. That focus on characterization and relationships comprises the entirety of the show’s appeal, while the universe is imaginative and the battles exciting, worldbuilding and action aren’t the reasons people love Firefly, Firefly owes its popularity to the intense drama and cathartic comedy coming out of a near-dysfunctional crew of radically different and lovable characters. Fans treasure moments like Kaylee’s giddy excitement at the ball, or Jayne’s discovery that he has somehow become a legend amongst the people of Canton, not the intermittent shootouts that happen in each show. To adapt Firefly to a system of game mechanics and rules would necessitate replicating the same charming characterization and interpersonal relationships that make the show so appealing.

Man, these people were awesome.

This particular Firefly game is a “Social MMO” for Smartphones. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I’ve had experience with both Social Facebook games and MMORPGs. “Social games” utilize Skinner-box design to facilitate social interaction in the form of using other people as a means to achieve personal progress in your farm or city. MMORPGs conversely reflect a narrative of capitalistic growth as players start from nothing and work up to great heights. Neither of these mechanics communicate what makes Firefly so appealing.

I don’t know what mechanics would effectively translate Firefly‘s core appeals to an interactive format. Maybe an Inara Ren’py dating simulator? A FTL-like management sim for Wash and Kaylee? Maybe if we were to go nondigital, a Firefly-inspired tabletop RPG would work to systemize that great characterization and relationships, after all, Serenity’s crew is about as functional as my own Dungeons & Dragons group, right down to the crazy psychic whose antics endanger everyone (me). Perhaps a version of a game like Mass Effect 2 with more non-combat things to do for characters like Book or Simon, after all, the game’s episodic, television-like structure allowed for a very deep level of characterization, the conversation system allowing for relationship-building to be systemized effectively.

Ultimately, whether or not the Firefly MMO is real, I take the news with trepidation. There is a lot of potential innovation out there in taking the diverse range of emotional experiences that film, literature, and television provides and translating them into game mechanics, heck, I secretly yearn for a Legend of Korra open-world RPG, the ethical implications of that show would make for an awesome morality-game. But when I see so many of these projects wind up terrible, I begin to think its something more than rushed production schedules and sparse budgeting, I think its a problem in the way studios approach game design.

Writing for the Artifice: The Role of Narrative

The Artifice
The Artifice

So I ended up getting an offer to write for a crowd-sourced online arts & culture magazine named The Artifice. It’s a British project that seems to have gathered quite a following a few years ago out of a successful alternate-reality game. Under the terms through which I am bound, the writing I do for them will be available exclusively under the Artifice, meaning I can’t reblog to places like Gamasutra.

So what that means is that I’ll be posting links to the content I write for them. I’ll still have stuff avalaible here, but if you’re looking to read some of my more focused content. Direct your attention to The Artfice. My first article is an introduction to the old Ludology-Narratology debate aimed at mainstream gamers, and it’s worth the short time it’ll take to read it.

Nascence: A Reflection

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.

Chelsea Howe’s diagram of the factors that contribute to “Ludus Florentis”, a phrase that I’ll use here to describe what’s going on right now in gaming.

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.

A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.
A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.

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.

The road trip up to GDC
The road trip up to GDC, oddly moving.

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.

Sony made an incredible indie push at this year's GDC.
Sony made an incredible indie push at this year’s GDC.

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.

Final Games.

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 fl0w both 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.

The Unfinished Swan owes its genesis to a similar program at USC Interactive.

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.

at the 5D conference
at the 5D conference

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.

I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.
I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.

Ludus Florentis.

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.

A tidal wave has come, let’s ride it.

Thoughts on Saints Row: The Third and Ludonarrative Dissonance

In the initial moments of Saints Row: The Third, irrelavant backstory is introduced with the Star Wars Title Crawl to the tune of the 2001: A Space Odyssey. The game then cuts to a gang assault in an urban basketball court, which turns out to be a Japanese energy-drink commercial, being watched on a character’s cell phone as they prepare to rob a bank. The bank-robbery turns out to be a film shoot. One of the gangsters remarks, “ultra-postmodernism, I love it”, dons a giant mask of himself, and begins shooting up the building.

aww yiss…

Ludonarrative Dissonance: I Promise this is Relevant

One problem I have with sandboxy-action games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, is that they suffer, more than any other genre, from ludonarrative dissonance. Simply put, ludonarrative dissonance is a problematic phenomenon in video games when a game’s mechanics thematically contradict the game’s narrative. This is mostly caused when game developers try to tell a specific story using the wrong genre.

Left 4 Dead 2 doesn’t try to touch the same emotions as The Walking Dead

Game genre is more than a box of mechanics and design decisions used to codify a game, game genre also determines the type of behaviors and emotional responses that designers want to promote in their game worlds. A slow, graphic-adventure game like The Walking Dead promotes a wildly different set of behaviors and emotions than a cooperative first-person shooter like Left 4 Dead. While both games deal with surviving in a zombie apocalypse, their respective genres each promote the telling of radically different types of stories. The Walking Dead‘s slow, methodical mechanics are intended to promote a melodramatic and introspective narrative, while Left 4 Dead‘s mechanics are intended to promote frenetic excitement and panic.

Which brings me to what frustrates me about sandbox games in general: the types of behavior that the genre promotes fundamentally contradicts the types of stories that developers attempt to tell with them.

Genre Confusion in Sandbox Games

Red Dead Redemption is the story of reformed outlaw John Marston’s attempt to come clean with his past, his quest to bring his former gang members to justice, and his salvation in the love of his family. Over the course of his adventure, he will kidnap maidens and strap them to railroad tracks, rob banks, and shoot up entire towns before riding off into the sunset on a stolen bronco.

If this seems confusing or problematic at all, blame Red Dead Redemption‘s confused choice of genre. Red Dead Redemptions somber character drama of salvation, inner-turmoil, and the quest to find peace clashes violently with its genre, making it perhaps the single most frustrating example of ludonarrative dissonance in recent memory.

Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston: evidently a family man.

The sandbox genre promotes a very specific set of player behaviors and emotions. As an open space for freely constructed play, the sandbox-game lends itself to the creation of freely-formed challenges. Powerslide for a hundred meters, jump 200 feet into the water, collect three diamonds to build a pickaxe, run over as many pedestrians as possible, survive as long as you can as cops pursue you. Simply put, the sandbox game promotes spontaneous, free-form play in the form that Callois would call “paida”.

The playful behavior that the sandbox game promotes is fundamentally incompatible with the deep character dramas that games like Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV try to tell. This owes itself to the fact that said playful behavior mostly manifests itself as attempting to drive muscle cars into incoming pedestrians. But if John Marston is really trying to redeem himself and Niko Bellic is trying to escape the demons of his past, why is it that their respective games promote behavior such as driving stagecoaches off cliffs? If Wei-Shen from Sleeping Dogs is an undercover cop, why does he take pleasure in slamming civilian’s heads into car doors? The silliness that these sandbox-games encourage is contradictory to the serious stories that these games have.


Which (finally) takes us back to Saints Row: The Third. Here, narrative and genre exist in perfect harmony. Unique amongst contemporary sandbox games, ludonarrative dissonance is not a problem to Saints Row. The game’s world, characters, visuals, and narrative operate with the game’s mechanics as a cohesive whole. While Red Dead Redemption‘s world was populated with incidental collectibles, minigames, and animals meant for hunting, Saints Row‘s world is populated with spontaneous challenges such as hidden ramps, wide-open roads for powersliding, and narrow alleys for running pedestrians over.

The Opening of Saints Row 3
The Opening of Saints Row 3

Its also fitting that Saints Row is juvenile, filthy, and ridiculous. Gang leaders are worshipped like celebrities, criminal organizations operate like record labels, and the civilians of Steelport live in a strange mix of veneration and fear of the Third Street Saints, as quick to run away from the player as to beg for an autograph. Phallic imagery bounces about from weaponry to in-world advertisements. Minigames range from throwing oneself into incoming traffic to collect insurance money to riding about in a flaming ATV trying to set pedestrians ablaze. Intertextual references are too numerous to count. Everything about Saints Row’s fixed narrative frames the player’s behavior in Steelport’s sandbox in an appropriate manner.

All this extends to the game’s mechanics, which both expect and reward free-form, “paida”-type play. “Respect”, which amounts to experience points, is rewarded for successfully completing the spontaneous challenges that players may set for themselves, such as bowling over pedestrians with power-slides, surfing atop moving vehicles, and dodging between incoming traffic, leading to character upgrades and other extrinsic rewards. Saints Row is cognizant that players are going to behave in violent and silly ways, and thus structures itself to reward such behavior.

All that I’m saying here is that Saints Row provides a rare example of an open-world crime game actually making sense narratively. Perhaps this owes itself to the game’s self-proclaimed “ultra-postmodernism”, which becomes particularly blatant after the “http://deckers.die” mission. Ultimately, the silly, self-aware humor of the game creates the only kind of narrative appropriate for the sandbox genre. In retrospect, perhaps games like Red Dead Redemption and Sleeping Dogs would have benefitted narratively by limiting player freedom or picking out a more fitting genre for the kind of story that they try to tell.

I Like Games

One thing that has sat on my bucket list for a while is to give a TED Talk. If I were to do one, it would be on video games and how awesome they are and why everyone should at least care about them.

I think that after the casual revolution that came around 2006, video games have infiltrated the public consciousness and stayed there. Add the proliferation of iOS and Facebook games, then everybody’s a gamer. I don’t want to get into the whole “Are Games Art?” argument here, since that argument was already settled decades ago, and any further attempts at justification in this day amounts to nothing more than self-aggrandization  Instead, I just want to say that I love games.

Darfur is Dying

Games give us empathy, they allow us to share the experience of another individual by simulating their identities and lives. By actually experiencing the struggles of another person through interactivity, we can comprehend how other people experience the world more intimately than in any other medium. For one, Darfur is Dying allowed players to understand the crises facing those affected by the Darfur genocide, tasking them with protecting their family from insurgents and managing the limited resources of a refugee camp, risking their own lives to get something as simple as water. Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia shared the experience of being a transgendered person in contemporary society with its players, a kind of life that I, a young, straight, privileged, male, cannot naturally relate to. Yet, through interactivity, this alien experience can become relatable and understandable, and as a result, we can empathize with people whose lives are radically different from our own.

When teaching about the Holocaust, most schools go to Elie Wiesel’s Night or Anne Frank’s diary to allow students to observe the dehumanizing effects of oppression. If we were to take students out of the role of a passive observer of someone else’s story, and instead place them in the shoes of a Holocaust survivor in a simulated reality, imagine how much closer to home the messages of these stories would hit. Games have aspired to become more emotionally involving in recent years by asking players to make increasingly difficult ethical decisions in their virtual worlds. Perhaps asking players to sympathize with the victims of unimaginable oppression would be a step in a bold new direction for such a movement. If anything, such a game, if done artfully and tastefully, could instill understanding and sympathy within its players.

Games become even more interesting when we consider them as an interactive storytelling medium. By letting our own identities bleed into those of our in-game avatars, as in Mass Effect and Skyrim, we become more intimately attached to the stories that we can create through our participation in a game’s world. Already, games such as Half Life and Bioshock have exploited the perks of an interactive, explorable, medium by using virtual environments to tell immersive stories with rich, imaginative, universes. Things get even more interesting when you approach more experimental games, Spec OpsThe Line self-reflexively questions our enjoyment of violent video games through its subversion of gaming tropes. Journey abstractly touches hearts using a subtle, unspoken language transcendent of cultural boundaries. As a narrative and artistic medium, gaming becomes increasingly hard to ignore.


Looking beyond the potential of games to let us empathize with others, games most importantly serve as a social framework through which relationship can be made. Over a decade ago, Pokemon served as a social framework that united us all, and despite our diverse backgrounds and peripheral interests, most kids in my third grade class had a common interest in Pokemon. We would discuss the teams that we had assembled during recess, surreptitiously sneak our Game Boys to school to make trades, and be envious of the one kid who had that Shiny Zigzagoon. Ask any gamer you may meet, and s/he will recall fond memories of elementary school and the friends that they made playing it. Games unite disparate people, their play serves as a common language through which we bond with each other. Chess leagues, FPS clans, DnD groups, ARG communities, nerdy fandoms, MMO guilds, athletic teams, political parties, games have done an immense social good by allowing us to form authentic relationships with each other and become part of a larger community. If to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human need, then games serve this purpose admirably.

Which is why the reignited controversy over violent video games perturbs me. While I welcome an impartial study on the effects of violent games, the inflammatory accusations that I see from pundits are disturbing. I owe myself to games: they were my childhood and their play served as a fundamental building block to my character. In the brief time that I have spent on the side of the developer, my affinity for the medium has only grown. Being part of the USC Interactive Media Division, I stand at the very edge of a rapidly expanding universe, and the future for the medium that I see being constructed by my friends, mentors, and colleagues thrills and inspires me.


I see that future in Reality Ends Here, a pervasive alternate-reality game that has facilitated collaboration and creativity in the students at the School of Cinematic Arts. I see that future in Project Holodeck, a experimental, motion-controlled, virtual-reality interface for playing games. I saw a lot of that future at IndieCade, a festival to celebrate the creativity of independent games. We stand at the dawn of an incredible new age for games, and a vast uncharted future stands in front of us, to step towards a broader, richer, world of games is both thrilling and terrifying, to step back out of unfounded fear of the unknown would be a disservice to the world.

Thoughts on Spec Ops: The Line

This review is spoilerific. If you intend to play this game and take in its full impact, come back later. 

Spec Ops: The Line is a game about games.

If Journey was the most spiritual game I’ve ever played, Spec Ops: The Line is definitely the most intellectual. It is a self-reflexive critique of violence in video games and a demythologization of the military shooter, achieving meaning by existing as a violent video game itself. This game is in no way, shape, or form, meant to be taken as an escapist fantasy into a fantastical world, but rather as a mirror to be used for self-reflection.

Spec Ops: The Line

There are two ways to read Spec Ops: The Line: as a game, and as a metaphorical art piece. As a game, Spec Ops isn’t very good. The simple combat, while functional and smooth, feels indescribably lacking, failing to evolve over the course of the game and growing repetitive by the end of the first few levels. That said, if read as an art piece, Spec Ops’ gameplay deficiencies are an integral part of its thematic and narrative meaning, making it one of the most important games of the year.

The Anti-Game

If I am to use language from my film studies class, Spec Ops: The Line can be described as a uniquely modernist shooter, exhibiting an “alternative gaming” attitude that disregards commercialization. It takes a multitude of experimental risks to ask an uneasy question of its players: “Aren’t you all a little fucked up to enjoy all this violence?”. It exists as a darkly cynical subversion of the military shooter, a critique of video-game violence, and a prompt for introspection on part of its players. Spec Ops: The Line is highly self-aware and willingly goes against the cultural norms maintained by games as a whole. There are four ways that Spec Ops conveys its message, through its fixed narrative, its visual design, its gameplay, and its subversion of player expectations.

Fixed-Narrative Subversions

As Spec Ops’ story is surrealistic and open-ended, players will leave with their own interpretations of what happens in the game’s campaign. The game begins in media res with Captain Walker making a daring escape from a ruined Dubai whilst being chased by helicopters, a mysterious sandstorm comes out of nowhere and crashes his team’s vehicle. The game then implicitly cuts back to several hours ago, as Walker and his team are making an entrance into the ruined city to evacuate Colonel John Konrad and his 33rd Battalion, which entered the city six months ago and were never seen again.

As they explore the city, it becomes apparent that the 33rd Battalion has become an occupying force, intimidating the locals into submission. Going against pleas to bring in a third party, Walker continues into the city, under the impression that the 33rd Battalion has been exploiting the citizens, he fires white phosphorus on them. When he discovers that innocent civilians, most notably a woman and her child, were among those killed in the attack, Walker blames Konrad and swears to take revenge on those who died, dedicating his existence to bringing him to justice. Walker obtains a radio to communicate with Konrad, exchanging taunts and threats throughout the course of the game.

Combat from the early game

After a number of adventures, Walker arrives at Konrad’s tower to find him painting a scene of the white phosophorus strike. At first, Konrad seems as menacing and mysterious as he was throughout the entire game, until Walker discovers his desiccated corpse slouched on an office chair like a throne. Konrad existed only as a figment of Walker’s imagination, a traumatic hallucination to somehow scapegoat or justify the atrocities he committed and witnessed throughout the course of the game. In a fourth-wall smashing conclusion, Konrad’s projection manifests itself in front of Walker, telling him, and by extension the player, that he explicitly had the option of leaving Dubai and turning off the game, instead, he pushed on out of a misplaced desire to feel like a hero, oblivious to the abyssal gap between his intentions and the actual impact that he has on Dubai. The projection then raises a gun to Walker’s head and starts counting down. The player is then given the option to kill the projection or have Walker commit suicide.

Over the course of the game, it becomes increasingly clear that Walker is suffering from hallucinations, or in some way, the events that one sees depicted onscreen are not real. In one memorable sequence, a heavy trooper seems to teleport throughout a destroyed shop, upon being shot, the trooper vanishes, revealing that it was only a store mannequin. At times, the world flashes into a hellish, fiery landscape, Konrad’s tower giving off a menacing glow. One popular interpretation of the game is that Walker died in the initial helicopter crash in the prologue, and the events of the game represent his experience in Purgatory.

No matter your interpretation of the game’s events, it is evident that the game’s events are not realistic or intended to be perceived to be reality (whatever that means in the context of video games). Rather, the game’s narrative aims for surrealism, an irrational juxtaposition of gameplay and story to convey a message. Military shooters of all stripes aim for ultrarealism in both their graphical fidelity and their physical simulation of combat, ArmA, Call of Duty, Battlefield, the list goes on. Considering that Spec Ops goes against the grain of the shooter genre, it is subversive in both how its narrative is framed and the unreliable way that narrative is presented.

Visual Subversions
The second way that Spec Ops demyths the military shooter comes out of its visual design. The game does this in two ways: in the overall surrealistic look of the game’s world and its pastiche of visual elements from other shooters.

Its Unreal.

The famous Moon scene of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask loosely resembles Spec Ops‘s ruined Dubai. Light bounces surreally off sandy cliffs thousands of feet high, lending the world an eerie, dreamlike glow. Thirty story buildings are buried underneath many tons of sand, necessitating a large number of rappels as the player descends deeper into the city. Reality and Walker’s subconscious projections continuously intermingle throughout the course of the campaign: did you see that white stag run off into the distance? Wasn’t that dead tree rife with green just a moment ago? Did the face on the billboard just change? The game’s visual surrealism accents Spec Ops‘s critique of how military shooters aspire to achieve realism.

More obvious however, is Spec Ops‘ pastiche of visual tropes common to military shooters. This is especially evident in the game’s second act as Walker approaches and ascends Konrad’s imposing tower at the center of the city. This plays off a visual trope common to works from Lord of the Rings to Half Life 2 to Journey: the hero’s Odyssey towards his ultimate goal visible in the distance, the build-up towards the final confrontation in the villain’s imposing citadel. Spec Ops upholds this visual trope by having the citadel tower over the player as a visible goal for the latter half of the game, even going so far to have the tower glow ominously like the Eye of Sauron in one hallucinatory sequence. When the player finally arrives there, this trope is subverted. There is no final battle. The nine surviving members of the 33rd Battalion line up and simply surrender Dubai to Walker. After a short elevator ride to the villain’s lair, Walker discovers that his enemy was imaginary and commits suicide. If the whole “villain’s citadel” trope is intended to build up towards a “storming the castle” moment, then Spec Ops effectively subverts this trope by removing any element of oppositional violence from this concluding sequence.

All this becomes more interesting when we consider that Spec Ops‘s final moments mockingly parody the final battle of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. In Modern Warfare 3, Captain Price assaults a luxury hotel in Dubai to hunt down Makarov in hopes of avenging his friend Soap. Both of these sequences are structurally identical to each other, revolving around a confrontation with the enemy’s remaining forces in the lobby, a climactic ascent in an elevator, and an epic final clash with the enemy on the tower’s roof. Spec Ops condescendingly mocks Call of Duty by maintaining an identical visual structure but removing all the bombast.

While Modern Warfare 3‘s final sequence features a challenging shootout with the remnant’s of Makarov’s forces as they make their last stand, the remnants of Konrad’s army simply surrender to Walker. While the elevator ascent in Modern Warfare 3 featured a battle with a helicopter and a striking backdrop of Dubai, the elevator ascent in Spec Ops is brief, quiet, and uneventful. The final confrontation with the antagonist in Modern Warfare 3 ends with Price overcoming Makarov and avenging Soap, while Spec Ops ends with the Walker’s death. This derisive imitation of a successful military shooter accents Spec Ops’ condescending tone towards the genre as a whole. 

Gameplay Subversions

The most daring subversion the game makes comes out of the mundanity of its combat. This game gets repetitive quickly and contains gameplay warts such as respawning enemies and a dearth of weapon variety that would have been acceptable five years ago. The only gameplay evolution seen throughout the course of the campaign is a substantial escalation in the brutality of the execution moves, otherwise, Spec Ops’s gameplay stays the same throughout the entirety of its narrative. This is all done purposefully though, as it brings into question the player’s motives for playing the game. If the gunplay is repetitive and fails to evolve, what reason does the player have to continue playing except to watch increasingly grisly executions? The game’s ending proposes that Walker had eschewed the choice to leave Dubai, thereby implying that to stop playing the game midway through was a legitimate ending that players could choose.


This is where Spec Ops moves its metaphorical crosshairs from the military shooter genre to the player him/herself. If our participation in the game’s world will inevitably lead to its further destruction, what motive do we as players have to continue playing? The game does not reward continued play with new gameplay mechanics and the game’s plot grows increasingly hostile and depressing as it progresses. Why would we want to play until the end? This question is answered in Konrad’s final monologue, where he addresses the player directly: “You’re here because you wanted to feel like something you’re not: a hero”. In one elegant swoop, Spec Ops challenges our acceptance of violence in video games, going against everything that we’ve come to expect from this medium.

Subversion of Player Expectations

By now, it goes without saying that Spec Ops demythologizes the military shooter and questions fundamental precepts of the interactive medium. The finaland most brutal, method that Spec Ops utilizes to achieve meaning is by its subversion of player expectations. During its ad campaign, 2K and Yager attempted to depict the game as a generic military shooter, and given the game’s unfortunate title, promotional trailers, and boxart, it effectively disguises itself as a crappy knockoff of much better games. For its opening chapters, Spec Ops effectively holds this guise, the opening chapters are rife with poorly written dialogue and Walker and his crew seem to be no more than cardboard cutouts of Gears of War characters. The first few levels are intended to leave a bad impression on the player, initially leading them to question why they bought the game and why they’d continue playing in light of much better games like the aforementioned Gears. All this makes the game’s attack on the player’s motives all the more devastating.

Perhaps the most interesting scene where player expectations are subverted comes during the aforementioned white phosphorus scene. When Walker and his team are searching for a group of civilians held by the 33rd Battalion, they come across a large number of guards patrolling a courtyard. Walker finds a mortar loaded with white phosphorus rounds, and uses it to clear the area. In order to facilitate better aiming, he launches a camera into the sky and operates the mortar from a computer.

At this point, the game transitions to a black & white birds-eye view reminiscent of the AC-130 level from Call of Duty 4. Having being trained by similar games, the player is subconsciously led to want a high bodycount and feel a sense of excitement and gratification when s/he sees an explosive vehicle or a large group of enemies bunched up together to make the next victim of an aerial strike. Imagine the excitement the player would experience when he sees a group of 30-40 guys bunched up together. Trained by other games to view this as a good thing, the player pulls the trigger and fires an air strike.

Which leads to perhaps Spec Ops‘ most shocking and uncomfortable moment. That large group of “enemies” bunched up together that you saw from the bird-eye view? Those were the civilians that you were trying to liberate. The 33rd Battalion perceived you as a threat and brought them here to protect them from you. Knowing player’s expectations from the genre, Spec Ops is conscious of what players expect as positive and negative feedback, making the revelation that they just caused great harm in the game’s world that much more devastating.

What This All Means

Spec Ops is a game that anyone interested in the art-game movement should play. It is in no way, shape, or form, a happy game, and most players will come out of it feeling awful. But there’s no denying that this game is important. For a game to critique its own genre, medium, and audience shows that games have matured substantially, and Spec Ops uses the uniqueness of the interactive medium in unique and effective ways.


My high-school theology teacher once said to me that evil appears when people and institutions fail to question themselves. While Spec Ops’ harsh indictment of such a foundational principle as simulated conflict in video games is unsettling and uncomfortable, it is necessary as video games mature. If Spec OpsJourney, The Walking Dead, FTL, The Unfinished Swan, and Hotline Miami are a sign of things to come in gaming’s future, we’re all in for one hell of a ride.

Life in IMD

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.

USC Interactive Media Division

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.


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

The Dark Deception Project

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

Reality Ends Here Cards used to prompt creative projects
Reality Ends Here Cards used to prompt creative projects

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.

at Zocalo Public Square
at Zocalo Public Square

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.

Journey was somehow important to us all

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.