Look, I realize that Mac gaming is, on the whole, an oxymoron, like ‘jumbo shrimp,’ ‘diet cake,’ and ‘libertarian.’ And if you want to play on your Apple laptop, why, you’re even worse off—seemingly relegated to ports, casuals, freebies, and castoffs. Until recently, even Apple admitted you were better off dual-booting into XP.
But you bought a MacBook Pro anyway, knowing full well what you were signing onto. “It’ll be a dedicated workstation,” you told yourself. “I’ll only do work on it; I’ll be careful with disk space and RAM; I’ll spend all the rest of my days trying not to covet PC gaming.” But one morning you woke up and you realized iMovie wasn’t cutting it anymore. I need to download ten games that are totally ideal for my MacBook Pro. That’s what you said. That’s what you sound like.
Fortunately, I was sitting at my word processor when I distinctly heard your cry of despair. And your cry of despair coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Mac, erm, two weeks ago.
What luck, then, that I’ve made this list of ten games! Each one is downloadable, every one, ideal for MacBook gaming. Enjoy!
Something I’ve noticed in a few puzzle games that came out last year, such as Strange Attractors 2 and Orbient, is the focus on gravity and velocity. In both games you are completely at the mercy of these two forces of nature, and you can only indirectly interact with objects around you.
In a sense these games, as well as a fewotherexamples, owe a great deal to arguably the first major game, Spacewar. Spacewar was initially released in 1962 by a group of computer hackers at MIT who, upon getting access to the university’s fancy new PDP-1 computer, proceeded to pool their efforts and write one awesome head-to-head game. The premise is simple enough—each player controls a ship and tries to blow up the other guy while utilizing a limited supply of fuel and ammunition.
What makes the game interesting is the role of gravity. The ships are circling a star, and crashing into it will destroy you. The star’s gravity will pull you in or fling you out, depending on how well you can utilize it. Though you do have direct control over your ship, your thruster isn’t good for much more than maneuvering. Firing the rocket long enough to actually move independently of the star will drain your fuel in about 28 seconds. The winner is the person who can keep gravity from becoming an enemy.
I love vintage children’s instruments, and I try to collect them. (It goes along with the edutainment thing, I guess.) I really like miniature accordions, toy pianos, and different types of glockenspiels.
Usually I troll YouTube for ukulele covers, but tonight I figured, hey. Ukulele is stale. I ought to listen to melodica covers instead.
Now, the melodica is an interesting instrument. It looks like a child’s instrument, like some common recorder or penny whistle, but it has a really warm, organic sound that hints at its relation to the accordion and harmonica. But it doesn’t sound quite like any other instrument—the melodica is inscrutable. With both the melodica and the accordion, you get the sound of breathing, of little air valves pumping, which lends these instruments a “voice” that you don’t usually get either with wind instruments or with keyboards.
And that is why I like the melodica.
With no more ado, here are a handful of classic Nintendo songs as played on the melodica.
I remember the first time I saw Mass Effect in action, months ago. Here was a game where you could travel from solar system to solar system, exploring worlds in your ATV and interacting with alien races. And I couldn’t help but feel that I had done this before, years ago, with the Genesis.
Starflight is a now-obscure EA game that originally saw release on Microsoft’s old DOS platform, before being ported to the Genesis and a slew of other computers systems, where you essentially traveled through the galaxy, exploring planets, meeting aliens, and either talking with them and getting information or blasting each other to bits. Part of the appeal of the game is simply how fleshed out the world is; each of the alien races have histories together, and each will tell you slightly different stories about one other and themselves. Some will come after you for having a particular species of crew member on your vessel, while others will just try to blow you away immediately.
In keeping with this blog’s current trending toward pictureless confessionals and ridiculous ruminations on avatars, here’s more of the same.
I wasn’t allowed to play RPGs as a kid.
More specifically, I wasn’t permitted to play computer games in which you could create or alter your own character. Sometime, maybe a year and a half ago, I mentioned this fact on a podcast which, along with my semi-lyrical overuse of the word “totally,” seemed to arouse some bafflement and curiosity. “Why wouldn’t her mom let her play role-playing games?” some folks wanted to know. I hadn’t elaborated—I’d only mentioned it offhandedly—and perhaps that caused some people to be discouraged.
Of course, I was surprised by their surprise. Do these people not know, I wondered, that playing fantasy games will turn you into a warlock and your bedroom closet into a portal to hell?
I obviously have some lingering issues.
The power of urban myth
I was born in 1982, and I spent almost all of my childhood in a small, conservative town in Texas, during what I’ve now heard called the “Satanic Panic.”
The late 70s and early 80s are banner years for contemporary legend anthropologists. Urban myths—the likes that get a foothold among small-town Christian fundamentalist communities—were running amok. In 1977, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s allegedly copped to being a member of the Church of Satan. Fact. And in the early 1980s, it was common knowledge that Cabbage Patch Dolls themselves were possessed by demons. Duh.
One variation on the Cabbage Patch legend held that Xavier Roberts signed the buttocks of his doll-progeny to signify that he had blessed each one in the name of Satan. These bits of trivia were pronounced at the tables of our elementary school lunchroom as cold, hard evidence that evil dolls could, in fact, murder you in your sleep, if they wanted to.
Now that my readership has appropriately flatlined, I am permitted to publish the second in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. In part I, we talked about caricature, and I obnoxiously examined what makes my own face distinctive. Now, we examine what, exactly, makes cartooning effective. Here’s a hint: HAIR.
Seeing in the Abstract
Let’s talk cartooning.
In his wonderful work of literary and visual criticism, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains (emphases his):
...I’m going to examine cartooning as a form of amplification through simplification.
When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.
How do cartooning, caricature, and avatars relate to videogames in a broader sense? The key, I think, is iconography. Take a look at Character Design for Mobile Devices, wherein realistic character design and artistry are pared down to their simplest and most fundamental pixels.
Amano replied with an elegant description that could be applied to any type of icon. ”...Back then, ...my art couldn’t just go into the game without major adjustments,” he explained. “So I looked at the sprites as just a symbol of my art. Here’s an example: when you say ‘Mount Fuji’ and you make a motion like this”—here, Amano makes a peak sign with his fingers—“everybody knows what Mount Fuji looks like, so they get the mental image in their head. So I was in charge of making the master art piece that people would keep in their mind, and people would remember this art because of these symbols in the game.”
Waterford Crystal. I saw it on the Associated Press newswire. I said to my mom, “Oh, man, hang on to those glass vases or whatever, because it’s all over for Waterford.” I mean, Waterford Wedgewood is only bankrupt, but you know what that means.
Mom and I were at dinner, still talking about Waterford vases and Wedgewood dishware, when Chuf’s roommate—why am I calling him Chuf now?—IM’d me. My phone buzzed; I spent the rest of dinner staring at it.
If you don’t know what I’m getting at, please catch up. If you don’t feel any sense of loss or regret right now, this isn’t for you; come back later. Or, if you want to hear from someone who actually suffered real loss today, that’s over here. Or all over 1UP.com. Take your pick.
Or maybe you’re looking for something really articulate. You won’t find it here.
Right now, on a popular games message board somewhere in the dark recesses of the Internet, people are posting direct download links to, and torrents for, complete collections of audio and video files, and to screenshots of EGM cover scans. The idea is to hoard them, the same way I hoarded Circus Animal cookies in August after Mother’s shuttered its factory. I went to the convenience store, looked at the bags, counted my cash, tried to Collect Them All.
My mom knows a lot of people in that office on Second Street, by the way. She’d periodically come to San Francisco, intending to ruin my life for a week at a time, and she’d start by killing my credibility in the office (thanks for the help). She’d take a cab directly to the building; she’d bring her rolling luggage right to my desk.
“Stay here,” I said to her once, putting her in my desk chair. “Play Solitaire. Here,” and then I pushed the mouse toward her, “I am giving you Solitaire.”
Other parents play Guitar Hero. Why can’t my mom play Guitar Hero?
“Where are you going? Can’t you leave work yet?” my mom wanted to know. Her rolling luggage was now in Alice Liang’s chair.
“No, play some Solitaire,” I told her. “I have to record a podcast.”
My mother looked at me sidelong. “Wearing that?” she scoffed.
Oh, my God.
Later that night, Sam Kennedy said—I think only teasingly—“Your mom has no idea what you do for a living, does she.” I laughed. I was heartbroken.
My mom is affable, and she has the best of intentions, but what she loved about my job was a magazine to put on the kitchen table, with a byline to show off to visitors. She is 77 years old. She is a willing patron, but she has no idea what you do for a living, does she.
My mom is the Betty White of corporations.
My mom reminds me, with a sigh, “Look. You need money to do what you want.” That’s true. I get that. It’s sad when you run out of money.
My mom wants to know how everyone is doing. My mom wants to know that everyone is safe. How is that nice young man, Sam? How is Garnett? (“He’s handsome and charming,” she once observed, “so stay away.”) Scott? Is Scott OK? Let’s just start with who is not OK. OK. So we go through secondhand lists of names, and she is filled with worry, even though she isn’t sure what’s going on. Me neither.
This is the first in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. It will not be a perfect or academic analysis. In fact, it may be the least formal of the entries at Infinite Lives, simply because it treads some personal ground. In part I, we’ll examine what makes my own face distinctive. Then, and for the next three days, we’ll take a look at my subsequent attempts at avatar creation, gauging how they have succeeded or failed. The final piece will appear here this Friday.
During the NXE beta, someone sent a message to my Xbox. I didn’t recognize the handle, but he apparently knew me. “Your avatar looks so much like you!” he wrote. I frowned. “I hate my avatar,” I wrote back curtly. Then I clarified: “The hair is all wrong.”
He wrote back, confessing he hated his own NXE avatar. You know, the hair.
Later, at a Thanksgiving dinner among friends, I complimented someone on his NXE avatar. “I liked mine,” he agreed. “But yours was incredible.”
Was it? I wondered aloud. “I haven’t worn my hair that way in a year,” I reminded him. He seemed really startled, slowly realizing that I was right. I do not have short, shaggy hair. Not anymore.
The art of avatar creation is, at times, the same as the art of caricature. It could be said, too, that caricature is the equivalent and perfect polar opposite of vanity, that willful misrepresentation of yourself as someone more attractive than you really are (see also: Myspace angles). Caricature is here defined as not only an exaggeration, but as a “grotesque imitation or misrepresentation.” And because caricature is a deliberate misrepresentation, in a perfect parallel with the art of vanity, it willfully contradicts reality. Your identity on the Internet, as in the workplace and in virtual worlds, is probably a work of willful caricature.
I recently had a friend over for multiplayer, and I was taking Halo 3 out of the Xbox and putting Gears of War 2 in. Or maybe it was the other way around—I don’t remember. But I was putting one disc into the drive, and returning another to its case, and then I had the keep-case for Halo 3 in my left hand and Gears of War 2 in my right.
And I had never seen the box art for the two games side-by-side before. “Oh my God!” I shouted. I presented both boxes to my friend. “Just look at them—it’s the same cover!”
“How could a Christmas shopper tell these two games apart?” I continued. I named the similarities aloud: on each, there stands a hero, totally kitted out, wielding an enormous gun, set against a post-apocalyptic futurescape with a big, fiery sky, maybe with some alien architecture or a spaceship just along the horizon.
“If it’s so easy,” I concluded, “I think I have a real future in box art.”
I’m not being snide here. So, for your consideration, my attempts to punch up a couple game franchises for their eventual blockbuster releases:
Your mother was right: those games will rot your brain.
Here are ten (?!) horror movies for gamers. Thanks to the combined efforts of reader comments and my own loathsome late-night cable TV habit, catalogued below are, count ‘em, ten—not seven—horrific parables about videogames and those who have the misfortune to play them.
Note: To everyone who linked to TV episodes, those were also great.
These movies are, almost uniformly and without rival, the absolute shittiest the horror genre has to offer. Enjoy.
How to Make a Monster, 2001
A made-for-TV movie based, however loosely, on the 1958 horror flick of the same name. In it, a team of game developers are pulling all-nighters, attempting to finish their next survival horror title. But when lightning strikes an AI chip…
Yeah, I can’t really recommend this movie. At all.
“Bishop of Battle,” Nightmares, 1983
Emilio Estevez stars as a teenaged arcade rat whose game obsession results in inevitable, supernatural comeuppance. This is pretty much the greatest, most archetypical videogame horror story ever written, set in that remote era back when Berzerk could kill a man.
Verdict: Perfection, crammed into 26 perfect minutes.
Stay Alive, 2006
For a movie that nobody watched, Stay Alive is weirdly watchable. And although the movie title is supposed to sound ominous, I’ve always been reminded instead of a popular disco tune.
Anyway, the plot. A bunch of twentysomethings get a preview copy of a PS2 game. Then they start dying. Honestly? I remember being surprised by how much I liked the cinematographer’s use of color.
Verdict: It isn’t Shakespeare, but it might be free on cable.
St. John’s Wort (Otogiriso), 2001
A videogame artist (J-horror staple Megumi Okina) and her producer decide, inexplicably, to explore a creepy old mansion. The plot unfolds like a survival horror adventure game—think Silent Hill or Fatal Frame—but without the scares.
In short, it’s the Japanese version of Stay Alive.
Verdict: A stylized clunker with a weird, tacked-on twist ending, but one that I own on DVD anyway.
Just when you thought it was safe for CD-ROM gaming to finally take off, Eddie Furlong and his post-grunge bowl-cut go on a murder spree from inside the game. And this was well before anyone ever thought to call videogames “murder simulators”!
My favorite part of the trailer is when the puddle of computer-generated blood pools into the shape of a compact disc.
“There was a movie in the early 90’s called Arcade. It starred A Christmas Story’s Peter Billingsley.
“Arcade looks about as childish as Spy Kids [3-D], but it did have enough violence and language to earn an R rating. It’s an awful fucking movie nonetheless. David S. Goyer (Dark City, Blade, Batman Begins) wrote the abomination.” —SpatulaOfDoom
In spite of Spatula’s derision, this movie trailer is, for me, pretty effective—probably because I am still infatuated with the VR machine they had in the mall movie theater in 1993.
Verdict: Peter Billingsley…!
HALLOWEEN BONUS: Thanks to Zort in the comments, as well as three belated recommendations from Chris Person, I am adding three more movies to the list—bringing the list from its initial seven to a nice, round TEN.
Which brings me to a brief editorial note: in our collective strain to think of ten whole movies, the genre definition of ‘horror,’ at this juncture, becomes rather lenient. Does sci-fi/dark fantasy/suspense/action/thriller count as Halloween horror? Sure!
Does eXistenZ count as straight-up horror? It sure counts as bizarre.
I actually don’t remember this movie very well, but here’s what I can type from memory: Jude Law is in it. Christopher Eccleston is in it. Cronenberg directed it. And, uh, to play the game inside the collective dream, they put their hands into an alien vagina. That’s how it went, right?
Just seeing the trailer makes me want to go screaming to a psychotherapist.
Notoriously bad fantasy flick with a cult following. In it, a computer gamer with muscular legs wakes up to find himself… See? You don’t even need me to continue.
In keeping with the established format of this blog, I should really post a trailer. But this pebble-in-the-rough is so obscure, it doesn’t seem to have a trailer. So, in lieu of a grainy VHS dub, here is crisp footage of a young man earnestly synopsizing The Dungeonmaster instead:
Verdict: Why do people love this movie so much? So you don’t have to.
Game Box 1.0 is styled after some of the earlier entries on this list, and it is a glorious mess. In it, a heroic game tester (the guy from “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch”) fights to avenge his dead girlfriend (the girl from “Boy Meets World”). Um. Here’s a trailer.
Verdict: Brain Scan 2.0.
There you have it: seven cautionary tales for gamers and three honorable mentions, each a story about the game becoming real; every one, a misguided masterpiece.
If you think of any more (and I’ll be pretty annoyed if you do), leave ‘em in the comments.
What follows is just one brick in the wall MSI posted yesterday:
So this brings us to video games as a means of encouraging reading. There is no logical connection between these two activities—in my experience, the only activity that video game playing encourages is more video game playing. This is not inherently evil (just mostly), but neither is it going to achieve the stated end. But! also! “some educational experts suggest that video games still stimulate reading in blogs and strategy guides for players.” And nothings instills lifelong literary habits like video game strategy guides. ... Again, I have to wonder—how excited should we about every line of text a child reads? Is it an achievement that a child can establish basic communication with his peers, which is essentially what a message board allows, and which is completely different from understanding literature? Are food labels the next big literary thing?
So I read this, and instinctively, I think this woman is kidding. After all, she wears glasses. Also, she identifies as a Chicagoan who now lives in a new city. Her punctuation is so Lewis Carroll. She is obviously very likable. She also belies, in her blogroll sidebar, an interest in casual gaming—how can I not assume that we are cut from the same cloth?
Moreover, she notes elsewhere that, just this September, she was reading Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History. Why, this summer, I was reading a different history of children’s literature, Minders of Make-Believe (thanks, Seth)! So while I would ordinarily pay this blog entry no further thought, I am, instead, helplessly furious.
I underscore MSI’s interest in children’s lit because, in her rant, she hints at having a broader suspicion of edutainment on the whole: she isn’t just skeptical of software targeted at youth, but also at mainstream children’s books and, I can only assume, various other media. And this is so frustrating, because we share a real interest—how best to cultivate children’s literacy and enthusiasm for learning—but, clearly, we approach this from completely opposing vantages.
Rather than deconstructing this blogger’s argument (which I assume she wrote for her own writerly satisfaction, and not to engage the entire GamePolitics readership), I will simply confront it with:
My Favorite Software and Edutainment Titles That Promote Literacy
Storybook Weaver (MECC, 1992)
It’s a computer game in which you seldom read, only write.
Maybe this is a strange place to begin a list about literacy, but alas, Storybook Weaver is the first game I played on our very first family computer. To be fair, this ‘game’ was nothing more than blank pages to type into, along with an enormous catalogue of clip art. But the clip art was populated with archetypes from folk- and fairy- tales, ready to be graphically remixed, mashed up, and ultimately, written about. Storybook Weaver was like magnetic poetry for elementary school kids. This was perhaps, in my quest to write the Great American Novel, my most prodigious era.
This summer, my friend Chris and I went, along with our friend A.J., to Video Games New York. I browsed the glass case full of Virtual Boy games, then beelined to the counter to ask, in a breathy stage whisper, “Hey, hi. Do you have that Japanese Virtual Boy game? The first-person shooter that is based on Lovecraft? The one where you shoot fish-people?” No, they did not have that game.
I immediately called bullshit on her, since things that awesome just don’t exist, ever.
Then I googled it.
Turns out she was totally not making it up. It’s called “Insmouse no Yakata” (Innsmouth Mansion) and was a first person shooter.
So now you know: the legend is true. The ill-fated Virtual Boy did, indeed, have exactly one 3D first-person shooter, and it took place in Innsmouth, and in it, you actually shot freaky fish people. Except for the time I insisted Mary Tyler Moore had briefly served in the Senate, I have never lost a bet.
I mentioned the INN Revival Project in passing to Josh, my e-friend of over ten years, who, like me, had a Sierra Network account in the early- to mid-nineties. “Yeah,” he said of INN Revival, “too bad that never took off.”
Excuse me? This is a common misconception, I told him. “But they never got the INN software to work!” Josh protested. I let him know that the INN Revival is alive and well! And it isn’t a huge overhaul of the INN software—it’s actually the same software (mostly), emulated in DOSBox!
Getting Back to Our Roots
The ImagiNation Network, AKA the Sierra Network, was among the earliest virtual worlds and online multiplayer gathering spots. With the exception of LarryLand, which was densely packed with casinos and lewd talk, the virtual world was targeted at family values and wholesome, clean fun. In MedievaLand, you could hop into Shadow of Yserbius, a proto-MMORPG, or either of Yserbius’ sequels. Yserbius was an early graphical MUD that is, today, extremely clunky by WoW standards, but compared to the earliest text MUDs I telnetted into, was absolutely breathtaking.
In a way, Yserbius was INN’s downfall. AOL, who owned and operated Neverwinter Nights, purchased INN from AT&T, simply so they could shut the Yserbius operation down. Neverwinter Nights is credited on Wikipedia as being the first MMORPG to display graphics—this, I think, is absolutely debatable (not only because of Yserbius’ place in the canon, but also because of Mad Maze, the online Prodigy MMO).
Now that Josh knew INN was being played on PCs and laptops all over the world, he wanted in. But how?
“I assume you’re on a Mac,” I sighed. “It’s trickier than installing DOSbox for PC.”
Of course, the process isn’t that tricky; the real problem is, the steps are mostly undocumented.
What follows is the explanation I gave Josh. It’s tailored for Mac users like me, with OSX as your operating system. If you’re a PC user, these instructions might not do you much good—with a little extra reading, you’ll see that setting up DOSbox and INN for PC is actually easier. You can do it!
When I was a fiction writing undergrad, our class was visited by the great Lee K. Abbott. I felt at odds with him, I remember. He told my class that it was wrong to write a story with certain facts concealed. He told us that when the facts of the full story are only gradually uncovered, the process is, to the readers, unfair.
Annoyingly, Lee K. Abbott was not wrong. There are stories we tell that are very deliberately ‘unfair’; it is now obvious to me that Abbott is not a fan of horror.
In the horror genre, and especially in Japanese horror, real fear comes from the thrill of discovery. And Japanese horror itself takes a cue from, not just the principles of Asian cinema and plotting, but also the very distinctly Japanese design philosophy. Japanese design is less about agency, and more about uncovering a plot. Lee K. Abbot would be furious with it.
Recently Leigh Alexander published this intriguing feature at Kotaku, about the history of survival horror. Apart from being an excellent overview of the genre, it wisely compares Western and Japanese game design philosophies. Most importantly, Alexander asks this question: does survival horror still exist? She writes,
Don’t Fight, Just Run!
Titles like these all have distinct differences, of course, but they all tend to have a few traits in common. First, they largely de-prioritize combat mechanics, favoring challenging the player through elements like on-location puzzles, mazelike game areas, using the environment itself against enemies, and even fleeing and hiding instead of direct combat.
It’s true. Alexander names Siren and Fatal Frame as two of the finest examples of using vulnerability to create horror and panic. In the Fatal Frame canon, you do not use weapons or ‘defeat’ anything, per se—rather, you are a young woman wielding a camera.
Scott Sharkey’s favorite kid on YouTube plays ukulele. So does mine. Scott Sharkey’s kid does a cover of “Still Alive.” So does mine.
So of course S.S. and I compared videos.
And we’re in agreement: we have to get these two kids together. If there is a god, these two will meet and fall in love.
And they even both do a twee little thumbs-up at the end of their songs! Which makes me wonder whether the boy had never seen the teenaged girl’s YouTube video—but more likely than that, their love is simply meant to be.
Sept. 13 edit: Regarding the charming thumbs-up punctuating each ukulele performance! One Roo Reynolds captured a still of each thumbs-up, which now lives at his Flickr account here. Aww!