Zero Time Dilemma Will Hurt Your Brain

This essay was originally written for the Game Developers Conference 2017 Narrative Review Competition, where it won a gold award and got me a free pass to GDC. Major spoilers for 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. Minor spoilers for Zero Time Dilemma.

Explaining the plot of Zero Time Dilemma, the third game in the Zero Escape series, to someone who hasn’t played the first two entries, is a bit… complicated.

A synopsis of a game written for sane people might start by giving you a bit of background on who you’ll be playing as, when the story takes place, what the context of the conflict is, and what force drives the action forward.

Zero Time Dilemma lacks simple answers to all of these questions; part of the game’s brilliance comes from the way it builds on concepts introduced in its predecessors, 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. So, to adequately describe just what the hell is going on in this labyrinthine Sort-of-Visual-Novel-But-Not-Really released for Nintendo 3DS earlier this year, we have to go back and analyze what made the first two games so special.

Continue reading

How Mario Maker Makes You Laugh

This essay was originally written for the Game Developers Conference 2016 Narrative Review Competition. Unlike my 2015 and 2017 entries, it did not win an award.

Andrew Stanton, the writer and director behind WALL-E, Finding Nemo, all three Toy Story’s, and several other beloved Pixar movies, began his 2012 TED Talk with a story:

“A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland, and he stops at a pub to get a drink. And the only people in there are a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint, and they sit in silence for a while. And suddenly the old man turns to him and goes, ‘You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands from the finest wood in the country. Gave it more love and care than my own child. But do they call me MacGregor the bar builder? No.’ Points out the window. ‘You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold. But do they call me MacGregor the stone wall builder? No.’ Points out the window. ‘You see that pier on the lake out there? I built that pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide of the sand, plank by plank. But do they call me MacGregor the pier builder? No.

“But you fuck one goat…’”

Continue reading

Have Recent Zelda Games Lost the Allure of Discovery?

This article was originally written in 2014 for Nintendo Enthusiast.

In the latest Zelda-themed episode of internet cartoonist Arin Hanson’s Sequelitis series, Arin says that there’s no mystery in modern Zelda games. For the most part, I agree with this.

Mystery is something that’s very important to me in games, movies, books… pretty much everything! With the recent announcement of Zelda for Wii U and how it will be open-world—as in, even more open world than all the other Zelda games that are open world—I’ve been thinking a lot about how it could finally be the game to bring mystery back to Zelda. But what made old Zelda games so mysterious in the first place? And why is the mystery gone now?

Continue reading

What Glittermitten Grove Revealed About Steam

If you’re the type of person who can be immediately sold on a $20 indie game you’ve never heard of based on a mild recommendation from a random internet blogger, then dammit, I have to try. For your sake.

In mid-December a game called Glittermitten Grove came out on Steam, and, like most games, was ignored by all 125 million Steam users. You can’t really blame them. I mean, watch the trailer for yourself:

Continue reading

Why Paper Mario: Color Splash Doesn’t Completely Suck

If you go look up a trailer for Paper Mario: Color Splash on Youtube, chances are you’ll see something like this:


The internet’s initial reaction to the game’s announcement was super negative. Even I was pretty down on it.

What we all really wanted was a follow-up to Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Since its release in 2004, no Mario RPG has come close to topping it. It had hilarious villains, an intriguing mystery, and an edgy world unlike anything we’d seen before in the Mario series. The game’s hub area, Rogueport, was home to bandits and organized crime lords, and even the more lighthearted NPCs had really unique designs that put a cool spin on the old Mario enemies we’d come to know and love. And that’s to say nothing of the awesome battle system that could be broken in some pretty fun ways if you were inventive enough.

So when Nintendo showed off Paper Mario: Color Splash for the first time, with its lack of NPC variety, simplified battles, and plain-looking world, people were right to be skeptical after Sticker Star left a sour taste in their mouths. It’s a shame that we were, though, because that skepticism lead to a lot of people missing out on one of the best games I played all year.


Continue reading

How Nintendo Steals Your Money

Being home alone at night is the worst. I mean, not for me. I’m all about that Elon Musk “the absence of photons is nothing to be afraid of” anti-supernatural mindset.

But, you know, for other people who are definitely not me, it can be scary. Demons, burglars, whatever. Sometimes it seems like there are monsters hiding in every shadowy corner; ancient forgotten evils lying in wait for centuries, yearning to enact their revenge upon he who stumbles upon them.

…this is kinda how I feel about all the copies of Ocarina of Time I have in my house.


Continue reading

How Gods Will Be Watching Turns You Into An Asshole

This essay was originally written for a class on Game Feel, which heavily referenced Steve Swink’s book of the same name.

One of the greatest things about games as a medium is their power to allow the audience to relate to the situations going on in the game by having the situation happen directly to the audience through gameplay. In a book, you can read about how characters feel and empathize with them; in a movie, you can see it. In a well-made game, though, that feeling of empathy comes from within you. In the heat of the moment, it’s almost like you’re actually there.

Most games will attempt to make their player feel a certain way to engross them in their world and cause them to feel certain emotions towards the characters in it. In Assassin’s Creed, you can climb anything—just like a real assassin! And when one of the members of your brotherhood dies, it’s devastating, because that death has real gameplay implications. Games can instill emotions in you through well-thought out rules.

Gods Will Be Watching subverts this by using its ability to instill feelings in its player not as a way of engagement, but as a way of disengagement—and it’s one of the best video game stories I’ve ever experienced.

Gods Will Be Watching, described by its publisher Devolver Digital as “a point’n’click series of dramatic puzzles about survival and moral dilemmas,” is an adventure game in which the player takes on the role of Sergeant Burden, a high-ranking member of Everdusk, a benevolent organization that operates “without any political or religious background to justify their actions; just common sense.” Burden’s mission is to calm the conflict between the galaxy’s all-controlling Constellar Federation and the violent rebel force Xenolifer. Continue reading

Why the Original Metal Gear is Still Really Solid

This essay was originally written for the Game Developers Conference 2015 Narrative Review Competition, where it won the Platinum Award and got me a free pass to GDC.

When one thinks about elegant design in a game, they often think of games with well-constructed patterns and systems that are experimented with as the game goes on. Whether it’s The Legend of Zelda, with its simplistic-yet-mysterious dungeon progression, or Braid with its strict set of rules from which the game’s puzzles emerge, we consider consistent, pattern-based design to be what all games should strive for.

The original Metal Gear, released for the MSX2 in 1987, throws these rules out the window—along with plenty of its own rules—and is all the more successful because of it.

The game opens with the player character, Solid Snake, arriving in Outer Heaven, a rogue militarized nation-state which he must infiltrate in order to save the captured FOXHOUND operative Gray Fox and find out what is being built in Outer Heaven. “Take action not to be discovered by the enemy,” the player is told. And thus, armed with only a pack of cigarettes (which makes Solid Snake’s health decrease upon using) and a codec by which they can call their commanding officer Big Boss, the player begins their mission.


Continue reading