It’s 2017 and Adventure Games Are Mainstream Again [WarpZoned Article]

TL;DR: I was given the opportunity to write an opinion piece on why I think Adventure Games will be mainstream again in 2017 for WarpZoned. Here it is.

I’ve been wanting to write this story for a while now, I’ve just been waiting for the right time. For the past year, I’ve been convinced that the adventure game genre is on the upturn for becoming mainstream again. And I believe most of that is owed to its influence on popular games of recent (Kentucky Route Zero, Night in the Woods, Firewatch). Whether or not the genre ever actually went away is up for debate.  I don’t really think it did, but I think the expectations of game sales became disproportionate as consoles grew in popularity, making adventure games seen as commercial failures in comparison of other huge AAA games sales. Adventure games, after all, were primarily only experienced on PC’s, which really narrowed the market for them.

With the recent release of Thimbleweed Park, Full Throttle Remaster, and titles by not-as-established-developers such as the Paradigm, The Journey Down, and a slew of others, I saw now as a pivotal moment to finally tackle this story. I really believe that 2017 will be the year for adventure games to “come back.”

Serendipitous enough, as I began drafting up the story a month back, John Scalzo of  WarpZoned reached out and asked if I wanted to contribute to their site. WarpZoned is a site that looks at how games of the past reflect forward on the games of the present, making the site a perfect fit for what what I was trying to convey in this article.

Further proving my point, days before my story went up, IGN posted an article on the 29 essential, must-play, adventure gamesIt’s really good, and I’m envious I didn’t do it first.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. Here’s the article: “It’s 2017 and Adventure Games Are Mainstream Again.”

A massive shout out to John Scalzo for giving me the chance to write this, and also, for being a really cohesive, somewhat hands-off, editor.

What do you think?  Are adventure games finally becoming a norm again? Do you even know what I’m talking about? Let me know in the comments.

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You’re friend,
Kurt

Opinion: Thimbleweed Park relies too heavily on nostalgia

[This is a spoiler free article on Thimbleweed Park. This is not a review.]

Upon its Kickstarter announcement, Thimbleweed Park is a game that I’ve been looking forward to since late 2014. At its heart, it’s a nostalgia project. Like so many other Kickstarters for point-and-click adventure games, it used the nostalgia of the genre’s heyday to sell itself: a self-proclaimed “LucasArts adventure game you’ve never played before.” But what separates this adventure game Kickstarter from all the others are its developers: Ron Gilbert—arguably the godfather of the graphic point-and-click adventure game—and Gary Winnick. The duo that brought us the 1987 classic Maniac Mansion.

To say it simply, adventure games are my favorite genre, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit just how excited I was to get this game. But after putting 6.5 hours into Thimbleweed Park, I’m left with a conflicting judgment: Where should the line be drawn between trying to develop a good game, and simultaneously make something that embraces the nostalgic roots that influenced a game’s existence in the first place? Even more importantly, where do I stand with judging the developers who’ve practically created the genre?

Within moments of starting the game, you are immediately reminded that you’re playing a pixelated point-and-click adventure game. Ron Gilbert wastes no time breaking the fourth wall, and has his characters cracking jokes about the tropes of classic adventure games. At first, this got a chuckle out of me. But it didn’t take long until I realized this would be a common theme in most of the conversations I would have in the game. So much to the point that I was being taken out of the experience, and felt completely removed from the narrative of the story: solving a murder in the small town of Thimbleweed Park.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 6.13.11 AM.png

Being taken out of the game is a frustrating contradiction to what has made this genre so important to me. I love adventure games for their immersion. Because they’re a “play-at-your-own-pace” style of gaming, and rely almost solely on story and atmosphere to drive the player forward, it forces the player to step into the world, rather than speed through it. It influences the player to relax when other games heighten them. I’ve always preferred adventure games over other genres for this reason.

Gilbert’s constant wink at the players almost feels like he has to remind you that he was one of the creators of the genre. Like he’s giving you a proud shoulder nudge, met with an exaggerated smirk, and saying “yeah, that was me. I created that.”  It feels like he’s trying to prove his worth to the audience, as if they forgot about him, which clearly isn’t the case, given that the Kickstarter’s success could be directly owed to his name being attached to it.

It’s strange—the constant reminder of the basic mechanics of the genre feels like it could be intended to tell a new audience the rules of the genre, like saying “this game was expertly designed to have no dead-ends or deaths.” It’s something longtime fans already know, but it equally feels like it could be patronizing to a new audience of the genre. It doesn’t allow them to figure out how the game works on their own. Whether or not that was the developer’s intention? I don’t know. I’m speaking not only as a player, but also a long-time fan of the genre, and I’m annoyed on both ends. It alienates newcomers.

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Give yourself a nice pat on the back, Gilbert.

Contrary to what I’ve said, I’m enjoying the game quite a bit. Actually, it’s really good. Its pacing is like none other I’ve played in its genre. It moves fast, while still giving the player time to experience their environment and discover at their own pace. Its soundtrack sets the mood immediately; the settings are wonderfully varied and well crafted; and the characters are unforgettable. And as the game progresses, the references become much less frequent.

But despite all that I like about it, the experience has left me asking: how much nostalgia is too much? Where is that line drawn between trying to please fans, and making a good game? In this case, Thimbleweed Park is good, but I can’t help wonder if I’d be enjoying it more if it just took a step back from itself.

I also think it’s safe to assume Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick made this purely to satisfy their own need to make a game in the genre that they helped create. And with that respect, I totally get it: artists and creators should make what they want to play. At the end of the day, Gilbert is the artist, and artists can do whatever the they damn want. He did, after all, create the engine Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion (SCUMM) that all Lucasarts point-and-click games were made with in the 90’s. So more power to him.

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Get it?

Thimbleweed Park does, however, represent some of its nostalgic references right. X-Files and Twin Peaks are deliberate influences, but take a back seat in developing mood, atmosphere, and story, opposed to telling the player that they were influences within the game. Also, there’s good references to past adventure games, specifically when a character refers to his cousin Bernard (a lead character in both previous Gilbert projects Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle) is a quick nod to previous installments in Gilbert’s works, but done right.

Gilbert and Winnick set out to make a game that would reward longtime fans, and by doing so, risked alienating a new audience. And whether or not that was their intention, or should have even taken that risk, is debatable. I just didn’t expect that I would be one of those feeling alienated.

I also have to admit that I have an ongoing dilemma with nostalgia, and our reliance on it to make something interesting, like we’re not capable of accepting new ideas unless it refers to something we already know and love. Someday down the road if I have the time, I’d like to elaborate more on our obsession with nostalgia.

So how about you? Do you utterly disagree with me and love a good fan pleaser? Or is there another game of recent times that has made you feel same way?

A list of adventure games of recent years that I love:
The Dream Machine
The Journey Down
Kentucky Route Zero
Machinarium

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-Kurt

Sylvio 2 is coming this fall, and I couldn’t be happier

One-man-developer Niklas Swanberg of Stroboskop announced that the sequel of the open-world, puzzle, horror game, Sylvio, will be arriving fall of 2017 for PC, Mac, and Xbox One.

Following the success of the first Sylvio Kickstarter, Swanberg took to the crowd-sourced website again in December 2016 to fund Sylvio 2 for SEK 130,000 (roughly $14,400), but was unsuccessful ending at SEK 83,919.

Fast forward a year, Swanberg took a few steps back from the failed Kickstarter, and put work into a “remastered” version of the first Sylvio, followed with a console release in Jan. 2017 for Xbox One and PS4. It’s assumable that the console release must have given him the leverage he needed to pave way for a much needed second installment. 

Like the prior game, Sylvio 2 follows Juliette Waters, ghost recorder and EVP-specialist. In the first one, set in 1971, Waters gets her hands on a reel recorder and stereo microphone. Eager to test out her new gadgets, she heads into an abandoned park called Saginaw in hopes to capture some EVP recordings. She eventually becomes trapped in the park, and must use her equipment to not only solve a long lingering mystery about the park’s closing and abandonment, but also find a way out. This time around in Sylvio 2, Waters returns to Saginaw park, but now armed with video equipment.

The player uses the equipment to capture audio and visual of the afterlife. The recordings come out distorted and fragmented, requiring the player to review the audio and visuals using the rewinding, fast forwarding, and slowing down features of her equipment to decipher and put the messages together. It’s a mechanic that allows the story to be told in a marvelously creepy unconventional way.

Sylvio was one of my favorite game experiences of 2015.

Sylvio can be best compared to a dream: it feels familiar, but equally has an unknown—almost unfinished—feeling. The world is sprawling and empty, all of which adds to its eerie atmosphere. Like trying to remember a dream, you can grasp onto fragments, but things in between seem to be missing. There’s logic to its world, yet doesn’t make any sense at the same time.

It’s been criticized for its graphics, controls, and lack of fleshed out mechanics. But similar to how I feel about Deadly Premonition, its lack of detail, its design flaws, and quirks—whether intentional or not—adds to a distinct aesthetic of the game. Its the bigger picture of both these titles that have made an impact on me. Sylvio offers things that I simply have never seen in a game of its genre before, especially in a story telling and world building sense.

The horror in Sylvio is entirely owed to its pacing and atmosphere. It never had a jump scare; its uninviting environment made me equally curious, making me want to explore every corner, but with a lingering sense of caution. I loved this game, and it’s stuck with me long past initially playing it. I can’t wait for the second one. 

I didn’t want to use this blog to have news pieces, but I saw this as an opportunity to gush over a game I’ve been wanting to write about and share for a long time.

Also, Sylvio went on sale today on Steam.

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Keeping game development in New York State

“Brain-drain.” It’s a term that’s been tossed around my city of Rochester, New York for a long time. All Rochesterians, businesses, and educators alike are aware of it. It’s the idea that folks come from around the world to receive our education (especially in video game development), and then inevitably leave for work elsewhere. And in most cases, it’s the West Coast. Why? Because right now, that’s where the video game industry is.

I, admittedly, was one of them. A few years back, I left Rochester for Seattle, Washington — which at the time, I didn’t really have a reason or intention; I just wanted to go. Of course I knew Nintendo was there, and so was Microsoft, but I hadn’t known initially going there that I’d somehow end up working at the former. It was also there where I gained a newfound appreciation for Rochester. While in Seattle, I had crossed paths with a few people who went to school at Rochester Institute of Technology, and then left after graduating to work for Microsoft, Bungie, or one of the other 250 game studios in Seattle. Hearing this not only brought a much needed enthusiasm over Rochester, knowing that my small home city was pumping out credible talented individuals, but also left me begging the question: “What are they doing here? Actually, what am I doing here?” Eventually, I came back.

Now, I need to put all my cards on the table here: I am not a college educated individual. I went to a community college briefly for a degree in fine arts, but never finished that degree. With that said, I may not have educational credibility to my name, but there is credit to my work (more on that in this post). I’m also not claiming that Rochester will benefit from having my brain, but it is clear that Rochester can be more than just a hub of education, but a city of great minds, and it needs all it can get.

The brain-drain also goes beyond upstate New York, but all of New York State. In fact, New York State is just about ready to do anything to keep our young minds here. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has created a free-tuition initiative specifically for SUNY graduates. As long as they stay in New York State after they graduate, they don’t have to pay their tuition. That is, unless they come from a family with more than a gross income of $125,000.  It’s a major catch. The plan has been met with opposing thoughts, and rightfully so: it’s pretty slippery. I don’t know if keeping graduates prisoner here is the answer, but the optimist in me wants to think it might be the nudge to shift where the industry grows next, even though, really, it’s a cheap trick.

There are efforts being made elsewhere, with less restriction to a graduate, such as the NYS Game Dev Challenge hosted by R.I.T. (I’ve mentioned this in past posts, and plan to elaborate more on it soon). The challenge is currently happening, with submissions closing on April 24, 2017. The contest is open to anyone who is a New York State resident (hobbyists and students alike).

Lastly, there’s the not-as-mentioned, as much they should be, Vicarious Visions. An Albany-based AAA game development studio that’s currently developing Destiny 2 and the Crash Bandicoot N’ Sane Trilogy.  I had the pleasure of listening to Vicarious Visions’ producer Kara Massie speak at the NYS Game Dev kickoff event, hearing her inspiring story of moving around the world from Canada to England, until she finally settled in Albany at Vicarious (her presentation can be watched below). So in short: there’s things happening here, cultivating a game industry all-its-own. It’s just a matter of educating others that it exists.

Rochester is a moderately small city, and aside from being known as a place to be educated on technology, medicine, and game development, it is probably most famously known for its culinary monstrosity the garbage plate. We can do better. And hey, don’t get me wrong – I love garbage plates. But what if we were the city of game development and garbage plates? That sounds a bit more enticing to me. And in a weird way, they kinda seem to go hand in hand.

– Kurt

Also, I nearly forgot. I started a Twitter account for VGCandC. So please, follow it.

I wrote this while sitting at Ugly Duck Coffee and listening to Future Islands’ The Far Field. “Cave” was a song that stuck out to me in particular.

What I read this week: Rumble by John Arcudi and James Harren.

Why Video Game Remasters and Re-releases Are A Good Thing

The game industry is still young, certainly in the likes of film and music. However, the games that have been produced over the past 30 years are beginning to age. What was once groundbreaking, is now a relic of it’s time period. Technology is ever advancing and growing, unlike games, which are forever held down to the technology they were developed on.

More often than ever, we’re beginning to see an attempt to remaster, re-release, and remake older and forgotten games. Many people (including myself), were angry and concerned with the lack of emphasis on new and exciting video games. Titles that weren’t even a year old (Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us), were being debuted on next gen consoles like something new and exciting; it was frustrating, and gave me little to no reason to buy a new console when all there was were games I had already played. But then, a feeling selfishness began to sink within me: I already experienced those games, yes, but what about those who hadn’t?

Then I thought: What if Casablanca could only be viewed on it’s original reel of film? What if every movie that had been released on VHS, was never brought onto DVD or Blu-Ray? Not everyone is a collector or a historian, and not everyone has the means to be able to experience things on technology before their generation. That’s when I realized: remasters and re-releases are alright by me, and anyone else that is upset or angry by it, is simply being selfish.

But as always, fans love to be upset about everything. Much like movies, it’s not uncommon for a game to be remade for a newer audience. Also like movies, fans will always go up in arms with self-indulgent empty-ego rage. The matter of the fact, is that those movies/games they loved so dearly, aren’t going anywhere; they’ll always have the original they loved. When Watchmen was turned into a film, not every original copy of the comic was burned off the face of the planet. In fact, it’s still in print, and more than ever! So this “nerd-rage” that fans have, isn’t only pointless, but it’s exhausting.

But then they say: “Well if I made the movie -”
In which I interrupt them saying, “Well you didn’t. So shut up.”

You know what happened when Spike Lee remade Oldboy, a film that I think is simply un-recreatable? I didn’t see it. End of story. However, if the original South Korean film was never re-released in America, I’d most likely never have a means of seeing it.

"I suck." -Spike Lee

“I suck.” – Spike Lee

Anyway:

As I’ve mentioned before, Grim Fandango is my favorite video game of all time. When released back in 1998, the game1421420509714.4 was widely received, but in the end, a commercial failure, and eventually, the game went out of print. It was virtually impossible to legally get the game. If you’re one of the lucky few to own an original copy (like me), it’s most likely that it will not run on any modern operating system. All-in-all, it’s not easy to get Grim Fandango.

Nevertheless, the gods have answered my pleading prayers, the planets have aligned, and a new generation is now capable of experiencing Grim Fandango! Writer/Director Tim Schaffer, and his studio Double Fine, have acquired the rights from Disney, and are able to re-release the game. Now, a generation that was born and raised past 1998, will be able to experience this timeless adventure game, when otherwise, they may have gone without ever knowing about it.

The industry is young, and so it’s audience. I’m not claiming myself to be some wise old man, but I am something of a scholar when it comes to artistic forms of storytelling. And if I’m not mistaken, it is a very common and normal thing to reproduce old art for newer generations. I don’t quite see why that’s a bad thing.

I can admit, it’s disappointing to see games remastered only a year later, but is it really any different than a movie being transferred from VHS to Blu-Ray? Maybe, but I’m not going to pretend like I know the answer. It’s also important to point that systems are no longer supporting backwards capability. Not everyone will have the system prior, or the system prior that, or the old operating system on their PC or Mac to experience older games.

Can you imagine only being able to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day on Laserdisc, and having to get up every half n’ hour to flip the enormous disc over, only to find out that you still have three more discs you’ll have to put in inorder to finish the film? Preposterous.

The moment he sits down, he’ll have to flip the disc over. So instead, he stands – draped with misery, knowing that Howard the Duck will never be transferred to blu-ray.

Remasters and re-releases are necessary. People need to have a means to experience these forms of expression widely and easily. How could one of the most important forms of human entertainment in the late 20th century go unrepresented for the future?

 

Now get over to GOG.com and pre-oreder a DRM free copy of Grim Fandango.