A game preservation primer Blog category

Hi folks! You may have noticed a dip in post frequency in the last two months. I’m hard at work on my panel and exhibit for MAGFest 2017, which have taken most of my spare time. There’s a bunch of games I’m excited to write about, but I want to make this MAGFest showing extra special. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with everyone!

In the meantime, though, I wanted to share a great recent article by Heather Alexandra about the challenges of game preservation. Preservation and archiving are vital for continued discussion of older games – especially those that don’t receive much attention – and Alexandra does a good job outlining those challenges. Her article includes interviews with leaders in the field, including including the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott and the Video Game History Foundation’s Frank Cifaldi. If you’ve ever wanted to learn a broad overview of the topic, this is a must-read.

The article also briefly touches on curation, an issue on the save wavelength. On top of archiving old, forgotten games, we need to “keep games alive in the public conscience” to give them context, purpose, and currency. Everyone can help with that. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish here, and I hope anyone reading feels the spark to do it too.

The Obscuritory comes to MAGFest 2017 Blog category

MAGFest logo

Tomorrow is the eighth anniversary of The Obscuritory, and I’ve got some great news to share.

I’m excited to announce that I’m joining the MAGES panelist team at MAGFest 2017!

MAGES is the Music and Games Educational Symposium, a panel series dealing with academic topics and cultural issues in gaming. It’s a great mini-event for meeting people who like to engage thoughtfully with games, and I’m honored to be part of it.

MAGFest 2017 takes place January 5-8, 2017. If you haven’t gone before, it’s worth a trip. It’s less a convention than a four-day gaming-themed sleepover. This’ll be my sixth year attending.

The panel breakdown is still being finalized, but I wanted to talk about one thing in particular…

SimEverthing panel logo

As part of MAGES, I’ll be running SimEverything: Lessons in Curious Game Design from Maxis, a panel about the history and philosophy of Maxis.

When we talk about Maxis, we tend to focus on their two marquee games, SimCity and The Sims. With this panel, I want to dig deeper and explore the radical ideas about player creativity and education we can find across their entire body of work – not just SimCity, but less-renowned and harder-to-explain titles like SimHealth, SimGolf, Widget Workshop, and Zaark and the Night Team. It’ll be part history lesson, part analysis. This is the product of a year-long deep dive into Maxis, and I hope it’ll be both entertaining and insightful.

But hearing about it isn’t the same as trying it yourself. I want to get these games off the shelf and into more hands. So, I’ve partnered with the MAGFest Computer Museum to let you play them throughout the weekend. I’m curating a special exhibit about Maxis with titles from my collection, including a playable showcase on vintage computers. After the panel, I’ll be at the Computer Museum to answer questions and walk attendees through the games. If you’ve ever wanted to try any of the Sim games, this is your chance!

This is a surreal opportunity. I’m ecstatic to join MAGES, and especially, I can’t wait to share all the Maxis goodness with attendees in January. Stay tuned for specific dates, times, and other updates!

Halloween Night II Macintosh categoryOther category

Title screen from Halloween Night II

My love for Halloween started with suburban trick-or-treating. It wasn’t just the candy or costumes. For one night, the town transformed into a weirder, spookier place. We would walk further up the street than we’d ever normally venture – and in darkness, when strangers lit their houses in eerie colors and papered their walls with skeletons.

Our clean-cut neighborhood turned shadowy and scary for a single evening. The next morning, Christmas decorations may as well have gone up.

Halloween Night II bottles the giddiness of that fleeting Halloween makeover. The game is a sweet tribute to a night when, maybe, there could be ghosts outside your window. Halloween Night II » Read more

Knight Moves Puzzle category

Title screen from Knight Moves

There’s no point skirting around the very, very silly premise of Knight Moves. It’s a puzzle game where your character moves in an L-shape like a chess knight. In each stage, your knight character (an actual knight) collects coins or swords to open the exit to the next room of a castle. This concept has no business being stretched out to dozens of levels, but you have to love the game for sticking with it despite that.

Screenshot from Knight Moves

Grab the swords in the right order. Mind the pumpkin men

The chess movement doesn’t present much challenge, surprisingly. Although you can’t always move your knight directly to a space with a coin, you’ll eventually land there after futzing around it in circle for a while. Though the game adds minor variations, like tiles that turn into hazards if you land on them too often, the differences are usually washed out by all the futzing.

More intriguingly, your knight never stops and always needs to move to a new space. You can jump to your next spot immediately, or the knight will slowly, automatically leap to another tile. This sets up some enjoyably awkward situations with the spooky creatures that roam the board. You have to adapt to enemy movement patterns while staying in motion, which complicates the little dance you do around the coins you’re trying to collect. Landing anywhere precisely can be a bit of a crapshoot.

So, maybe it mixes equal parts quick thinking and dumb luck. And maybe the whole thing barely makes sense to begin with. Oh well! If Knight Moves isn’t a well-thought-out game, by god, at least it tried something.

Come join The Obscuritory 24-Hour Charity Game Marathon Tea Party! Blog category

The Obscuritory 24-Hour Charity Game Marathon Tea Party banner

Tea icons by Pixture

In three weeks, on Saturday, November 5th, you are invited to the first annual Obscuritory 24-Hour Charity Game Marathon Tea Party!

So… what is this, exactly?

November 5th is Extra Life, a gaming marathon fundraising event in support of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. I’ll be streaming for 24 hours straight in support of the Children’s National Medical Center, the only exclusively pediatric hospital in the Washington, DC area.

In keeping with the mission of The Obscuritory, I’ll be playing multimedia software, shareware CDs, edutainment titles, weird old experiments, and who knows what else while soliciting donations from the wonderful folks at home. My fundraising goal this year is $150, and if we can reach that… I’m going to play an extremely terrible DOS game I made when I was 10 years old. It will be worth it.

And, as the name suggests, I’m going to be drinking a lot of tea to get myself through this. I’m big on black teas (and sometimes herbal, depends), so I’ll be sharing my favorite blends over the course of the day. You’re welcome to drink tea too!

Stay tuned for more info. I’m going to try to block out the 24-hour schedule so people can tune in for specific games. If anyone has any suggestions about what you’d like see streamed, please drop a line!

UPDATE: Here’s a full, tentative schedule of what will be on the stream this weekend. Things kickoff at 9am EDT as my stomach confronts its arch-nemesis, Ballistics. Hope to see you there!

UPDATE 2: I called the stream early because it took a much harder toll on me than I expected, but in 14 1/2 hours, we raised $200 for the Children’s National Medical Center and drank nine cups of tea. This was an excellent event, and I’m overwhelmed by the support. Thank you so much for watching and donating, and I hope everyone had a great time!

Dominus Strategy category

Title screen from Dominus

Dominus grants you a bird’s-eye view of a swirling battle that spans across a countryside. It also lets you peek into individual houses.

Despite that wildly varying scope, Dominus keeps its pieces simple. The game mines most of its strategy just from shuffling armies around its map. The big hangup isn’t the degree of complexity but the lack of time for everything else. There are so many ways to play Dominus, and with the clock always ticking, an effective playstyle expects you to ditch the more fun, peculiar options. Dominus » Read more

The bawdy secret of Secret Writer’s Society Blog categoryEducational categoryEssay category

I haven’t posted in a bit, for a combination of personal life stuff and other projects (more on that to come soon, hopefully!), but I wanted to share a wild story from educational software history that seems all but forgotten about.

In 1998, Panasonic Interactive Media released Secret Writer’s Society, a game designed to help kids with writing. I haven’t been able to play Secret Writer’s Society (it’s hard to find, for reasons that’ll be obvious), so it’s unclear whether the program was well-made or effective. It seems to focus on writing structure, planning, and drafting rather than the creative side of the process – maybe necessary but rote lessons.

One of the game’s major features was a text-to-speech tool that read back what you wrote. It had one big problem: if you wrote three or more sentences and double-clicked the button – which an impatient kid could easily do – the program would read out a string of obscenities, according to one parent “[going] way beyond George Carlin’s seven banned words.”

Initially, Panasonic blamed this on a bug related to the program’s language filter. But eventually, the “feature” was revealed as an act of corporate sabotage by an anonymous programmer who wanted to raise awareness about the stifling effect of relying on educational software for parenting. “Choosing to have a child constitutes a commitment to give that child the very best that you can,” the programmer said in a press release. “Letting a third-rate piece of software take over for you is wrong because it violates that contract. […] What I did isn’t a crime. The crime is letting profits get in the way of education.”

Culture jamming activist group RTMark paid the programmer a $1000 reward for his anti-corporate actions. (For context, RTMark was previously responsible for swapping the voice boxes in G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls and putting scantily-clad men with glowing nipples in Maxis’s SimCopter.)

The programmer’s statements are probably over-the-top, especially since educational programs often serve as supplements to teaching and parenting rather than substitutes. But the criticism is still valid. We do need to think about what happens, good or bad, when we automate those responsibilities.

Panasonic is probably glad nobody remembers all this, but Secret Writer’s Society made for a bizarre example in a debate about education quality that continues today.

BHunter Action categoryShooter category

Box art for BHunter

We will never get flying cars, at least in the form that every sci-fi movie suggests. Giving everyone a tiny plane is a regulatory and safety nightmare, so until we’re all connected to an automated driving grid, we have to rely on Back to the Future: Part II for the second-hand experience.

BHunter, an action game by InterActive Vision, nails that fantasy to the exclusion of everything else attractive about a future setting. BHunter‘s hovercar handles so well that it props up almost the whole game – except for its scattered narrative. The game wants the background of a dark city where no authority can be trusted without figuring out what role you play in that society. BHunter » Read more

John Hiles, unapologetic, reflects on SimHealth, what games can learn about cognition, and where Will Wright was wrong Essay categorySimulation category

Screen capture of the Thinking Tools website's "About" page

When Maxis Software wanted to expand their line of Sim games to include professional simulation products, they tapped John Hiles and his computer modeling company Delta Logic. As the head of Maxis Business Simulations, and later when the division was spun off into the independent company Thinking Tools, Hiles pushed simulation games in new directions by combining the appealing structure and appearance of SimCity with researched, behavior-driven modeling. His team produced simulations for specific companies as well as general business and management games.

Hiles’s ideas met opposition wherever he went, both within Maxis and from clients and critics who warned how simulations with practical intent could misrepresent ideas. But Hiles maintains that his games and software had the potential to challenge orthodoxy and, at their best, inform the public discourse and help us reflect on our own values in ways where experts fail.

I spoke with John Hiles about his development process at Maxis and Thinking Tools, the controversy surrounding his work, and the future direction of simulation software. He shared stories about how multi-disciplinary learning influenced his approach to the genre – and shot back at his detractors. John Hiles, unapologetic, reflects on SimHealth, what games can learn about cognition, and where Will Wright was wrong » Read more

Gooch Grundy’s X-Decathlon Sports category

Title screen from Gooch Grundy's X-Decathlon

Bad games have trouble capturing the same charm as terrible movies. You play games, not passively watch them, and engaging with poor design can ruin an otherwise enjoyably crappy experience. Repetition and messy controls aren’t much fun to deal with, and most unintentionally awful games suffer in that department.

Rest assured, Microforum International did once make a game so bad it’s good. And folks, it’s unbelievable.

Enter Gooch Grundy’s X-Decathlon, the zero-to-hero sports fantasy of your deepest nightmares and a triumphant disaster on every imaginable level. Top to bottom, from its concept to execution, the game’s freaky version of an international sports championship straddles the line between horrible and wonderful. It shouldn’t work, but because you can sample the game at your own pace as you find most entertaining, it endures as a stupid miracle. Gooch Grundy’s X-Decathlon » Read more

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