An interview with Jake Elliott

I interviewed game developer Jake Elliott in time for last year’s Indie Games Festival, but I never posted it anywhere. I knew the interview was too, too long for publication, okay, but it was just so great, I didn’t want to let any of it go. (I interviewed Jake over Skype during the big Chicago blizzard.)

Now, there is a far more readable version of this interview at Unwinnable.com; in the meantime I got special permission to post the less-edited version right here.

Jake’s latest work, The Penguin’s Dilemma, will be a playable installation at Super Button Mashers, a gallery exhibit opening February 11 at Chicago’s OhNo!DOOM. Don’t miss it! I’m serious!


Jenn: Let’s see. Uh, so. I should have reread my notes before this.

Jake: Oh, that’s cool. I don’t have any notes to work from.

Ha! That’s awesome. Also I am really bad at interviewing. I’m okay at having a conversation, though?

Well, okay! That’s fine!

So you’re actually nominated in [last] year’s IGF Nuovo category for A House in California. And this is an adventure game with really simple images, and simple, kind of graphical parser commands?

Yeah.

And I played Hummingbird Mind yesterday, and in comparison it seems like that game is simpler to play? Because it’s maybe all [conversation] trees? But visually it’s actually more complicated?

Yeah. It’s, like, photos….

Yeah, it’s photos, right. Exactly. So I guess I was curious about the aesthetic decision you made with House in California.

I mean, mostly it was a strategy about what I thought might be—like, I don’t really have much skill in rendering graphics and drawing, or anything like that, so it all kind of started as a strategy about how I could do everything in a game, for myself, without borrowing graphics from other people. In something like Hummingbird Mind, they’re all Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr that I did some processing on.

Oh! I didn’t realize that. I actually—
Yeah, I don’t call it out anywhere, but I mean, I credit the people in the—

No, I thought maybe you actually, um, had just, like, wandered around your apartment or neighborhood…

Right. I wanted to do something like that, but then I didn’t, and I just stole most of them. Or borrowed them, or whatever. Used them. [laughs]

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How Infinite Lives came to pass

Photo by Chris Kohler: Jenn Frank's placemat

Wired’s Chris Kohler:

Found: A lifetime ago, @jennatar and I sat in a diner and brainstormed website names on a placemat.

The year was 2006! According to Kohler, I registered this domain the very next day. Other names in the mix: duckdragons; pixelface; any fabricated word that could combine some “variation on a popular Japanese word in the U.S. lexicon” or “variation on (peripheral).”

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Quotables: artist Tyler Coey does Sega

Sonic the Hedgehog, reenvisioned by Tyler Coey

“Growing up you were either a ‘Sega kid’ or a ‘Nintendo kid.’ I was a Sega kid!”

—Artist Tyler Coey on Sonic the Hedgehog. His piece appears in the upcoming Super Button Mashers: a Gamer Tribute at OhNo!Doom, opening February 11.

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Super Button Mashers: a Gamer Tribute at OhNo!ARCADE

Super Button Mashers postcard front

This could well be the first-ever ALL GAMES-THEMED exhibit to ever open in Chicago.

“Super Button Mashers,” opening February 11, 2012, features an incredible roster of artists:

Aya Kakeda, Alex Willan, Ben Spencer, Blütt, Brandon Garrison, Brain Killer, Brian Stuhr, Brian Walline, Brianne Drouhard, CHema Skandal!, Cory Benhatzel, CZR PRZ, David Palumbo, David Rettker, Eric Broers, Glen Brogan, Isaac Bidwell, James Liu, Jason Castillo, Jenny Frison, Jeremiah Ketner, J.Shea, Joey D, Jordan Elise, Lana Crooks, Leeanna Butcher, Luisa Castellanos, Martin Hsu, Matt Hawkins, Matthew Ryan Sharp, Max Bare, Melissa Sue Stanley, Mike Budai, Mike Graves, Mr. Walters, Natalie Blue Phillips, Nathan West, Sean Dove, Shawn Smith, Shayne Labadie, Steff Bomb, Steph Laberis, Tyler Coey, Yosiell Lorenzo, Zoë Bare, and Plush Team

Super Button Mashers postcard back

What an all-star cast! I am so damn thrilled I don’t know what to do with myself.

And one more thing: curator Max Bare somehow convinced Chicago’s own Jake Elliott to submit an arcade game to the exhibit! It is an all-new game, and it will be playable at the show.

OhNo!Doom
Super Button Mashers Mega Opening
February 11, 6:00 PM-10:00 PM
1800 N. Milwaukee
Chicago IL 60647
Tuesday and Thursday 4:00 PM-10:00 PM
Saturday 12:00 PM-7:00 PM

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On death, motherhood, and ‘Creatures’

Kotaku - Playing God: On Death, Motherhood and Creating (Artificial) Life

I picked a pretty opportune moment to start writing for Unwinnable: it was the site’s “Death Week,” and if there is one thing I love to think about, it’s death.

One night I finally settled on an idea for “Death Week,” drank some beers, and wrote an article. It’s like a much shorter version of some of the longest articles I’ve done, so it was an interesting experiment. I really enjoyed writing it! I was comparatively concise!

You can read it at its real home, Unwinnable, or you might read it at Kotaku, where the heroic Kirk Hamilton has republished it. I recommend reading it at Unwinnable if only because I wrote it specifically for Unwinnable, but at Kotaku there is the benefit of the influx of comments. I love this. I already know what my article sounds like, so the real interest, for me, will be in what others say. When there are all these simultaneities in experience, I get really happy. So far the comments are really inspiring.

Finally—and I mentioned his article before, but—Mark Serrels’ piece for Kotaku Australia went a long way in influencing the piece I wrote, too. When I described his article last week, I started talking about my fear of kids, and this has probably continued to haunt me till now.

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“Daily” Linksplosion: experiential games writing

absolutely robbed from Stu Horvath, by Stu Horvath

Some time ago I stopped understanding how to use the Deli.cio.us cron; I’ve consequently relaxed in culling roundups of games-related writing I like. This, I think, is bad. I wonder how much terrific writing is slipping past me.

So I am back with an all new, not-automated Linksplosion.


By the way. It’s Death Week at Unwinnable, and I am very proud of its EIC, Stu Horvath. His piece, “On Death and Gaming,” was reprinted today at Kotaku.

The column stands on its own, but the explosion of reminiscence and reflection in the comments really underscores what cathartic, nourishing work Horvath has done.

There is a style of good experiential writing, and maybe it takes a certain type of experience, then, to know it when you see it. When people know it, though, they are on the same page. They gush. Check the comments. (Also, see the story’s second half. Also, there is newly a third act, which is the most fascinating of all of them, to me, except it waits until its very last paragraphs to even acknowledge video games. I think this is fine.)

The allure of “retro gaming” could well have a great deal to do with memory, with remembering where you were and what you were doing when you felt this one thing. I could make so much more fuss over why video games and death and loss and loneliness are all so connected, but I will stay simple, recommend that you read Stu’s articles, and encourage you to think about how video games connect to your own sense of grief and loss. Because it’s there, it’s there, even if you haven’t connected all these intermingling narratives yet.


I am also into emergent gaming and, uh, agoraphobia.

This is why I really appreciate writer Shaun Gannon’s piece “Professional Gamer.” Gannon has been experimenting with some different types of writing, and this one is maybe like a poem about fearfulness. I bet you’ll like it.

I shouldn’t try to explain anything else, and anyway, you people are not dense.


The website Critical Distance recently invited games writers to discuss “being other.”

Kotaku Australia editor Mark Serrels was up for the challenge, and his “Meeting My Daughter for the First Time (In the Sims)” really struck me.

I am scared of babies, but I am getting to the age where I ought to reconsider my worry, too. But there is a bigger thought, here—about avatars, about artifice, simulacra, that movie Synecdoche, NY—that also occurred to me. I like thinking about how we do and do not resemble our own avatars, about how self-perception is so skewed. But Serrels’ essay goes a step further.

I have heard of people using video game sports simulations to play “future games” and estimate sports brackets, as if sports video games could be accurate ecosystems anyway.

But suppose you were able to use a game to simulate your future son or daughter? Suppose you were secretly and grimly terrified about seeing the outcome? Suppose you played The Sims and discovered your own sense of relief? I am all for existentialism and all its blues, but this was a surprisingly pleasant column.

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Excerpts from Ben Jackson’s essay in the upcoming ‘Distance’

FarmVille, a Zynga property

My friend Nick Disabato recently founded a quarterly print publication called Distance, which pledges to underscore “longform essays about design and technology.” It launches next month.

Nick himself is something of a comparative media Renaissance guy, and on the whole I trust his judgment. Last week he recommended I skim an excerpt from one of the magazine’s first essays. The piece was written by somebody named Benjamin Jackson. Nick suggested I might find Ben’s work “interesting.”

Um, yes. Yes, I found it interesting. Why, a week and a half earlier I had hemorrhaged something passingly similar to Ben’s excerpt, albeit nothing so cohesive.

You owe it to yourself to read Ben’s essay, too, because it connects seemingly disparate ideas about patternicity, carrot-dangling, “gambling,” and the ethics of the con:

It was later revealed that the machine, more commonly known as the Mechanical Turk, was an elaborately constructed ruse, where a highly-skilled human chess player of extremely small stature was hidden in the cabinet. Openings on the sides revealed gears, levers and machinery designed to misdirect the viewer into thinking that the Baron had devised some mechanical means of intelligently responding to a player’s moves.

The Mechanical Turk is an early example of unethical game design. Later examples include three-card monte, in which a spectator is shown a card, is asked to follow it with their eyes, and is then misled into following the wrong card. Many casino games are unethical: for example, slot machines usually randomize their payouts to ensure that players keep coming back, even when they’re clearly losing money. But unethical traits can appear in any game, no matter how subtle, and a recent crop of games shows a fuzzier moral ground.

The primary characteristic of unethical games is that they are manipulative, misleading, or both. From a user experience standpoint, these games display dark patterns: common design decisions that trick users into doing something against their will. Dark patterns are usually employed to maximize some metric of success, such as email signups, checkouts, or upgrades; they generally test well when they’re released to users.

For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin take advantage of deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences. They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards in much the same way as the slot machines described above. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.

This trend is not just limited to social games, though: many combat games, like America’s Army, are funded by the U.S. military and serve as thinly-veiled recruitment tools5. Some brands have launched Facebook games like Cheez-It’s Swap-It!, and they serve as tools to sell more products. These techniques can be used in any sort of game, in any context.

What, with all these concurrent ideas about “scams,” is Ben readying to describe to us?

ZYNGA. He is about to discuss ZYNGA.

A longer excerpt appeared this afternoon at The Atlantic. Now you can really see how cohesive Ben’s piece is. It is all about the maturation of the con, how Zynga lands us, hook, line, and sinker.

Here is an especially magnetic aside about “what” makes a “game” “good,” and why we might choose to invest in any game the way we do (it strongly borrows from the sociological idea of “cost,” wherein every human relationship is a type of transaction):

At IndieCade in October 2011, Adam Saltsman, Canabalt’s creator, discussed the notion of “time until death.” All of us have a finite amount of time on earth, and any time we spend on a particular activity is time that we can’t spend doing something else. This means that the time we spend gaming represents most of a game’s cost of ownership, far more than any money that we spend. If that time is enjoyable (or rather, if its benefits outweigh its costs), then the game was worth our time.

Really exciting stuff; I can’t wait to see what the entire essay contains.

You can help Nick Disabato kickstart Distance over here.

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Chicago! Gear up for next month

Super Button Mashers: a gallery exhibit at OhNo!Doom

Strap in! I’m not sure how much I can—or want!—to tell you about this gallery show, but know this: it opens on February 11, and there will be art. Details forthcoming.

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Ads for Game Boy Camera and ‘Girl Talk’ (1998)

I posted these to my Twitter account this morning, but here they are again: two ads from the November 1998 issue of Teen People.

Look! I'm on Game Boy Camera

There’s something anachronistically stylized—very late-80s/early-90s, I mean—about the forced perspective in this 1998 Game Boy Camera ad. Like, why is his hand way up here when the rest of his body is way over there? I don’t know.

Girl Talk: a CD-ROM Game of Truth or Dare

The print ad for Girl Talk: the CD-ROM Game of Truth or Dare was what really gave me the heebie-jeebies, though. “It’s just like life but with better graphics,” the ad copy touts. Oh, dear. Worse, if I am interpreting correctly, there is single-player mode. So you are a 12-year-old girl playing Truth or Dare, at your desk, alone. That’s… well, it sounds a lot like my preteen years, OK, but my mother really tried her best to not encourage that type of loneliness.

I have the 1990 edition of the Girl Talk board game (I have it right here, actually), which was really only a pinker redesign of the original 1988 Girl Talk. Since my own girlhood, the game has been rehabbed as Hannah Montana Girl Talk, That’s So Raven Girl Talk, and—yes, I saw it in a Toys ‘R Us—Bratz Girl Talk. (Up-to-the-minute variants on Truth or Dare include “Girl Talk Sassy Stix” and Girl Talk Sparkle Spots.”

So I am staring at this ad for PC multimedia Girl Talk and I’m just like, I have no idea whether that were a good idea.

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On games of chance and “cheating”

Photo (Flickr): Chess by Howard Walfish

This Christmas I told my mother about Mohan Srivastava, some dude I first started thinking about ten-and-a-half months ago. Back then I’d written some diary thingie about “cheating,” “stealing,” and “cons.” The February 2011 issue of Wired was about all those things, too—the magazine had included an article about Mohan Srivastava—and reading the magazine was the first time I ever thought more carefully about “game-breaking” and morality. (Belated edit: I just remembered how much I like this book also.)

Over the holidays, my mother and I were watching an episode of The Mentalist together, which I like to watch with my mother sometimes because, even though it is a terrible television show, I like the idea of the main character being a mentalist and skeptic. A mentalist understands all these little rules about people (like how to perform a “cold reading”), and the hero of the TV show uses these talents for good.

This particular episode was about a town where all its residents are obsessed with finding veins of gold. The fictional people in this fictional town are all looking for gold but they are sidelining their lives to pursue it: going broke, wasting money on mining gear, alienating family, pinning every hope to finding those riches. (The episode is also about scams and cons, so I was really enjoying it, even though it was just as mediocre of every other episode of The Mentalist.)

“This really happens!” I said to my mother during a commercial. “People really waste their lives trying like this! On a pipe dream. It’s all just gambling,” I concluded. I was thoughtful.

“Haven’t I told you about Mohan Srivastava?” I asked my mother then. “The geological statistician?”

Srivastava is a type of statistician who consults the evidence, runs the variables through a complicated algorithm the rest of us will never understand, and thereby deduces the location of gold veins. So it turns out that locating a vein of gold is already a “solved game,” just like chess but more intricate.

This isn’t why Srivastava is famous; there are other geological statisticians who can also do what he does. Instead, Srivastava is famous because he realized “solving” the lottery isn’t so unlike “solving” the location of little streaks of gold in rock, and so Srivastava used the same rules and algorithms he already used for his job until, finally, he could no longer “lose” the lottery.

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The gAtari looks silly, sounds rad

I think my favorite part about the gAtari 2600—besides, you know, the body of the guitar is an actual 2600—is how the “frets” are just these ginormous footpedals, all fused onto the “fingerboard” in a row.

No, I realize the pedals are actually being used to play loops (Right?? And then the “whammying”), but they look hilarious. This machine does not sound hilarious, however. Rather, it sounds awesome.

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We hate Paul

This video has been around for maybe a day and a half, tops—in Internet Time, it’s already months old—but I really enjoyed its not-too-malicious dramatic reenactment of the dumbest, most interesting Holiday Shopping Nightmare human interest story ever told in 2011.

Also, Revision3’s Anthony Carboni is nowhere near jacked enough to play Paul, the villain in this melodrama, and this bit of miscasting is charming all on its own. (Kotaku and Escapist have the full deets, but the video might be enough.)

There are a lot of things about this I don’t understand. I don’t quite understand why “Dave,” the unhappy customer, forwarded his ongoing, charged email exchange to Mike Krahulik (“Gabe” of Penny Arcade, AKA the hotheaded one), except that Dave needed some muscle on his side. Mike tried his best to mediate, which is weird enough anyway, but there was little reasoning with “Paul,” the erstwhile giant of PR (whether he is even a PR guy is up for debate) who until recently had mishandled the marketing for some weird video game peripheral. Which, if you are wondering, did not ship in time for the holidays, and how dare you email Paul about this, Dave.

In a way I do feel bad for Paul. When a shipment is trapped in customs, you might feel helpless, especially when the holdup is not your fault. You can’t get frustrated with other people, though. Like, you just can’t.

So it turns out Paul might be a little bit of a nutjob; unsurprisingly, Paul no longer has a job.

And yet, and yet. There is so much pleasure—so much schadenfreude!—to be derived from this entire Greek tragedy, and I’m trying to wrap my head around why I’m getting off on it, along with the rest of the mob. It’s just so much fun to see a juiced-up marketing guy finally get peed on, isn’t it?

But why do we even feel that way?

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Replay: ‘Scapeghost’ (1989)

Scapeghost

A screenshot of 'Scapeghost' in DOS

AKA Spook
Level 9 · text adventure · text parser · 1989
Platform · Amiga · Amstrad CPC · Atari 8-bit · Atari ST · C64 · DOS · ZX Spectrum
Download · DOS · Spectrum


There is only one reason I would ever deign to tell you about some boring old text adventure, and here it is: Scapeghost is awesome.

For one thing, the game is well-written—we hardly get to applaud computer games for good writing anymore!—and for another, it is authentically creepy.

A lot of the creep factor is indebted to the atmospheric artwork that accompanies each new location’s block of text. (One 1990 review calls the VGA art “photorealistic,” which, no, but all the versions really are very good.) You can’t interact with the pictures—that’s the sort of thing you’d find in Déjà Vu, a super-duper-early Macintosh point-and-click adventure game—but each backdrop goes a long way in establishing the setting’s grim moodiness.

You were Alan Chance. You were a good cop; now you’re a dead cop. You were trying to bust a dirty drug deal and now, in death, everyone assumes the worst about you. You wake up at your own funeral. You can practically taste the mist.

From the get-go, this adventure is slim on real mystery. If you already know to follow the one especially-suspicious dude, he basically confesses to your murder under his breath. God, why do murderers always talk to themselves? I ask you.

So you already know the identity of the two-timing detective who offed you. All that’s left is to vindicate your own death… FROM BEYOND THE GRAAAAAAVE.

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Happy holidays! 1986 style

Screenshot: a Christmas card from Sierra

Sierra is pleased to present this living Christmas card. It is intended to help you demonstrate the color and sound capabilities possible with today’s personal computers while promoting the Christmas spirit within your store.

As an added bonus, you may customize this program each time you run it with a message of your own. This allows you to advertise your sale items, or to wish your customers a Merry Christmas in your own words.

This program is hard disk installable and is meant to be run in the morning and left running all day.

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The Kinn of Fighters: Neo Geo, FNG, and a Detroit gaming legend

After what seemed like ages The King of Fighters XIII has finally come out to consoles, bringing a gameplay style and aesthetic practically lost to the modern clump of fighting games. Gorgeous hand-drawn 2D spritework with a combat system that values smart gameplay and skill over comeback mechanisms, it is exactly what I’ve been wanting in a fighting game for a long time, and hopefully heralds SNK’s big break back into the US fighting game market. Sadly, the man who really brought me into the Neo Geo gaming fold, the man who was a die-hard fan of SNK’s games in general and the KOF series in particular, passed away a year ago, on October 16, 2010.

That man, Kinn (also known by his handle “Robotron,” or by his real name, Kim) was more than just another guy who played video games in the Metro Detroit area. He was a patriarch to the gaming scene who worked to foster a sense of community, and whose breadth of classic gaming knowledge made him nigh-unstoppable in games such as Mr. Do, Burgertime, and Zanac. An old school player through and through, Kinn grew up in the heyday of arcades in the late 70s through the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. He worked in arcades, won local tournaments in games like Robotron: 2084 (leading to his handle) and generally enjoyed gaming as a pastime on par with fishing, comic books, and cheesy science fiction featuring robots. Naturally he picked up the consoles of the day as well, and even started importing Japanese games in the early 90s once catalogs became available to purchase them through.

After a grievous injury on the job, Kinn lost his left leg, limiting his chances to take part in his more active hobbies and exacerbating preexisting health problems he already had to deal with, and so he spent more of his time with games and movies at home. While he did not entirely eschew modern gaming systems and genres, from the Dreamcast era on he focused his new purchases on arcade-style shooters (shmups, STGs, whatever you want to call them), multiplayer games such as Mario Kart, classic games, and of course, fighting games. Due to this fairly small trickle of new content he was picking up –- both domestically and imported –- he was able to focus much of his new-game budget on the newest releases for his favorite console, the Neo Geo, right up until the end of the console’s run, topping off at over 60 games before he ultimately sold the whole thing. In context, these were all critical components to a weekly event he held at his house off of 8 Mile since the 90s, known as Friday Night Gaming, or FNG.

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