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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

SimHealth Educational categorySimulation category

Title screen from SimHealth

In a 1999 interview, Maxis co-founder and SimCity creator Will Wright cautioned against taking the rigor of his company’s simulation games too seriously. “Many people come to us and say, ‘You should do the professional version,'” Wright said. “That really scares me because I know how pathetic the simulations are, really, compared to reality. The last thing I want people to come away with is that we’re on the verge of being able to simulate the way that a city really develops, because we’re not.”1

And yet, Maxis once made the case for the practical viability of simulation games with SimHealth. Produced in collaboration with the public innovation non-profit The Markle Foundation, SimHealth was marketed as “a tool for national debate” rather than a fun game. Its public service intentions stand in contrast to the playfulness of the rest of Maxis’s titles: it feels more clinical, no pun intended. The game harnesses the experimental discovery structure powering the Sim series into something more productive, revealing the strengths and limitations of games as hands-on learning tools and flashpoints for cultural conversations. SimHealth » Read more

kiki the nano bot Platform categoryPuzzle category

Title screen from kiki the nano bot

Deep inside a tiny computer lives a blobby little robot named kiki. kiki can glide around and jump and shoot pellets. And most importantly, kiki can make physics its plaything.

kiki the nano bot, a open source project by Thorsten Kohnhorst, has a brain-melting appeal best played rather than read. Describing kiki as disorienting doesn’t do justice to how alien it feels, as if it’s protruding in through another dimension. The game can be difficult to play straight, but its visual foreignness separates it from what a less risky game could do. kiki the nano bot » Read more

A warm welcome to ROMchip and hopes for the future Blog category

If you’re interested in gaming history – hopefully you are if you’re reading this blog! – consider signing up for the mailing list for ROMchip. ROMchip is a freshly announced online scholarly journal of gaming history spearheaded by three super-great historians, including Raiford Guins, author of Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife; and Laine Nooney, who is currently writing about the history and business practices of Sierra On-Line. ROMchip will include history articles as well as interviews and brief discussions of interesting gaming objects in museum and library collections.

Right now, the popularly told history of gaming tends to be a little scattered and often missing crucial information from the developers’ and publishers’ end. A concerted, thorough, academic effort to discuss game history is a great development.

I’m mentioning ROMchip here because it represents a uniquely formal opportunity to flesh out the corners of gaming history often left out of stereotypical gaming canons. More work can always be done to understand the history behind big marquee names, but I hope that the journal will find space to focus on the stories and experiences of garage studios, experimental developers, outsider games, the companies that didn’t make it past one or two titles, and the unexamined bulk that provides the mortar of gaming.

Green Strategy category

Title screen from Green

Joni Mitchell’s environmental anthem “Big Yellow Taxi” opens with the tragic image that “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Cascoly Software’s eco-strategy game Green introduces itself with that first verse and sounds like a direct adaptation of those lyrics, slightly naive folksiness and all. The villains literally want to pave over nature.

The game’s lighthearted anti-development conceit has the potential to make a fun point about keeping green spaces green. The player’s hands-off role doesn’t feel like an useful, interesting way to wage that war, though, or to stand up for the environment. Both the game and the movement need a better plan than being vaguely irritating. Green » Read more

Drowned God: Conspiracy of the Ages Adventure category

Title screen from Drowned God

Not every mystery has an answer. Yet we crave resolution, and if we can find meaningful rationale for a confusing series of events, we’ll take it. Drowned God: Conspiracy of the Ages knows this urge and uses it against you. The game fashions a grab-bag version of historical truth, raising nonsensical questions thrown together from tidbits from every religion and every corner of the world. Then it provides its own solutions, attempting to prove how its assemblage can explain all our questions about life and spirituality.

This only works if you accept that the game has some sensible interpretation of its ideas in mind, and if you want assurance in Drowned God‘s barrage of recurring signs and allusions, you have no choice. It tricks you into believing in conspiracy, placing paranoia above reason, and celebrating the discovery of grand unifying knowledge that exists because it has to. Drowned God: Conspiracy of the Ages » Read more

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