Tag Archives: Games

Review: A Mind Forever Voyaging

If you been reading this blog for more than few weeks or so, you probably know of my obsession for older computer games of the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve long looked at computer games as the perfect synthesis of my two main passions, writing and programming, and if I was more of an artist I probably would be trying to write my own indie games now.

A_Mind_Forever_Voyaging_Cover_FinalBut in the meantime I love reading about them, and for any of you who’ve been curious about why I love these games so much, you’ll be in for a treat with Dylan Holmes’ A Mind Forever Voyaging. Holmes takes an academic approach to gaming, examining both the ludic (play mechanics) of games and their narrative thrust (be it through text, cut scenes, actions of the player, etc.). But this is not a dry book. Holmes has explored every nook and cranny of these games and at times the book is as much his personal narrative of enjoyment as it is analysis.

While some might quibble with a couple of his choices (I’m not sure why we needed two Metal Gear Solids despite the shifts in tone), most of the games chosen are games I’ve played and loved. Each is an advance both in the way narrative stories are told, and in the way the player interacts with that story.

Holmes obviously loves these old games, and doesn’t automatically dismiss them because of poor graphics. But he does examine the ways in which these games succeed and fail at presenting moral choices (as in Ultima IV) apply cinematic techniques and a variety of game play (Final Fantasy VII and The Secret of Monkey Island) and the ways in which emergent game play goes beyond the expectations of the original programmers (Deus Ex).

Holmes takes a balanced approach toward games and treats them as a distinct medium. Often game analysis has either focused on the narrative elements alone (which can be lacking especially in sprawling epics like Final Fantasy VII or Shenmue) or only on gameplay (ludic) elements. While certain games definitely focus more on one than the other (the recent Unrest is almost entirely narrative driven, and games like the original Super Mario Bros. are largely ludic in their experience), the best games make good use of both techniques.

As with many video game books, Holmes is a bit of evangelist for treating games more seriously as a medium. Even in a society where games are played by people in their thirties or older, and where they make more money than some movies and books, they are still dismissed as something childish. And Holmes also addresses some of the ongoing challenges of technical requirements, and the ephemeral nature of games as compared to other media.

A movie from ten years ago can feel just as fresh (sometimes even more so if the filmmaker was particularly prescient about the future), but video games can age badly. I’d argue that anything made after about 2003 will still look good to a modern audience, though Holmes would contend this was actually a pretty fallow period for video game story telling (something I would tend to agree with given the richness of the previous decade). This makes writing sequels or ongoing series difficult, and why long running series like Final Fantasy will often reboot their narrative with each installment, keeping the same flavor of story, but not requiring experience with the previous game.

Ultimately I think this book has something to offer for both fans of games, and those curious about some of these great games they heard about growing up. While it might not convince those who dismiss games outright, Holmes does make a good case for the medium and its continued growth (and some of his own hope for the future).

You can buy this book (and others) as part of the Video Game Bundle V (on Story Bundle) for the next week or so. For $3 you get this book and three others, or for $12 you can get all eight books. I’m reading the Super Mario Bros. 2 book now and would recommend it as well.

And if you want to play any of the games Holmes writes about, fortunately they are even easier to get ahold of than they were when Holmes wrote the book a few years ago. Planetfall (as part of the Zork Bundle), Deus Ex, Ultima IV are all available on GOG (Ultima IV is free). Half Life, The Secret of Monkey Island (Special Edition) and Final Fantasy VII are available on Steam. The original Dear Esther is available on ModDB and the remake is available on Stream. Facade is available for free download here.

The Metal Gear Solids are a little harder to get a hold of and require original media (but used PS2 are still pretty easy to find to play them on). Heavy Rain is modern and should play on the PS3 or 4 and should be able to be easily found used. The original System Shock is a little more tricky (though I found my untouched copy for $1 at Half Price Books so you never know). The portable version Holmes suggests does work, though personally I find the experience is actually better from the original media. I’m really not sure about Shenmue though that might be one that is better to read about than play.

As for some of the additional gaming he mentions, Myst, Another World, Fallout, Thief, The Longest Journey, Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate II and Grim Fandango (next week) are available on GOG (I own all of these and like them all). Final Fantasy VIII and Half-Life 2 are on Steam.

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Filed under AGFV, Trube On Tech

AGFV: The End of the Blackwell Legacy

Today’s the launch day for The Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth and final entry in the Blackwell indie adventure series.

In it you play as Rosangela Blackwell a spirit medium or “bestower of eternity” who helps guide lost spirits to the other side. Your partner is Joey Malone, a spook who’s been dead since the 1930s, and who has been tied to the women of your family since your grandmother got stuck with him.


What this practically means is a lot of detective work. Spirits don’t know who they are or even accept that they are dead in some cases and it’s your job to find out and help them to accept it. In the process you uncover crimes both terrestrial and supernatural.


Each game is only about 3-5 hours long so it’s better to think of them as episodes in a season long game like the work that Telltale is doing (even though the first entry in the series was released in 2006). This last game is supposed to be the longest yet, taking its creator (who presumably knew the solution to everything) 5 hours to complete.

The Blackwell Games are a bit of a throwback, point and click adventure style games using pixel art that was present in games of the early 90s. Think Sierra’s “Quest” titles or LucasArts later SCUMM games. The developer (a four person team out of New York), Wadjet Eye Games, has produced a long series of games using the Adventure Game Studio engine, all of which are quality titles well worth the playthrough. Particular favorites of mine are Resonance, Primordia and The Shivah (Wadjet Eye’s first real game).

I played through the extended demo available on GOG and Wadjet Eye’s website and can’t wait for the released version later today. Gameplay has definitely improved since some of the earlier entries in the series, Rosangela uses her phone to look up clues and contact people rather than always having to travel back to her apartment and use her computer. One of the first puzzles is how to get inside a locked building (a handy trope of the series which involves sending your ghost envoy Joey in first, even though he can’t touch anything). The solution’s not the most obvious from the clues given, but most of the rest of the puzzles in the demo are solvable with a little thinking, and judicious use of each character’s unique abilities (Joey can’t touch anything but he can blow light objects like paper in your direction).


What I love about these games is the engaging mystery, amusing character dynamic, and fun puzzles that aren’t as obtuse as some older adventure games. It’s the best of games I played as a kid with less of the frustrations. The voice acting in the series can be a little over-dramatic at times, but I think that’s part of the indie charm, and what other series let’s you hear bloopers of the voice actors recording their characters after you complete the game?

And let’s not forget the music (the soundtrack for this game is over an hour), a mix of jazzy and electronic tracks that really set the tone of a cold New York night.

I can’t wait to play the rest of this game. Why are souls being ripped in half and will Rosangela be driven to the brink of insanity like her relatives? Why is Joey bonded to their family and is there an achievement for drinking coffee 50 times?

Do yourself a favor and at least check out a demo of the first game on Wadjet Eye’s site if you’ve never played this series. Or alternatively you could watch a let’s play of the entire first game here.

~All images from Wadjet Eye games, trailer from GOG.com

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What else can you do?

I’ve occasionally thought about what else I might do that requires 100s of hours of effort for uncertain payoff.

Actually the answer is quite simple: write games.

Specifically isometric turn-based RPGs, preferably ones with a lot of text dialog and 100s of hours of gameplay, in the fantasy or science-fiction genres.

Now you may think this is just a coincidence, given that most of what I spent last weekend doing was playing one such game (Avadon: The Black Fortress), but I’ve liked this particular format for a while, and have thought it would be interesting to take the time designing one of my own.

Think about the writing challenge. If you want a good RPG, you don’t want to funnel people into a linear narrative so you have to be able to give them bits of the story that can be rearranged in any order. And you have to allow for the possibility that whole sections of the game will go unplayed, but still have a story that makes sense and is satisfying to the player. And if you’re really ambitious, the story changes based the player’s actions, and grows and evolves into many possible stories.

Writing a game is like combining all the possible iterations of a novel into a single art form. That would be a fascinating challenge.

And I think I could write the game engine for an isometric game, and do it in a way that others could create content for it when I’m done. It would probably run on older machines, and be casual enough for the beginner player, but deep enough for the experienced as well.

The problem is a lack of any particular artistic ability for pixel drawing, but maybe I could hire somebody. Certainly a team would be helpful. And somebody to do the music or write additional dialog. And test the sucker.

Oh yeah and time, ridiculous amounts of it.

Ultimately the purpose of these ideas is to just get my brain running in a different direction for a while. Thinking about designing a game is what gave me the idea for one of my books, DM, and has some relation to how I think about others. And if nothing else, the thought experiment gives me a better appreciation of the work others do.

Still it might be an interesting side project…

I have too many ideas for one lifetime. Ah, well 🙂

What other things have you thought about doing that you decided against?


Filed under Faith + Life, Trube On Tech, Writing

Crossing The Finish Line

You’ve been working on a book for a year, perhaps more, and you are finally approaching the end of some significant milestone (first draft, first revision, or possibly even publishing), what do you do to celebrate?

My first draft of my first novel ever written took four years. I finished my senior year of high-school and my reward was a bottle of sparkling grape juice (closest thing to champagne for an 18 year old) and the realization I had 193,000 words to edit. (BTW, the book in question is titled Atlantia and I redrafted the first 50,000 words of it a few years ago for NaNoWriMo. It’ll come out one of these days).

Since then I’ve often used champagne as my little reward for a job well done, which is funny since the little red haired girl has to open the bottle. Never have gotten the hang of how those corks pop. (Some psychologist might say it goes back to a childhood game that involved sitting on balloons to pop them which also explains my distaste for the sound of a popped balloon).

For the Fractal Book I’ve selected a game (and the accompanying time to play it) as reward, since it’ll be the first to be widely shared with the world. True to form the game is a sci-fi RPG from 1999 which features songs from David Bowie and apparently an in-game concert appearance by a character modeled after him, Omikron: The Nomad Soul. (Never been a giant fan of Bowie (I didn’t grow up liking the Labyrinth) but the game sounds cool). I’m holding off on buying it til I’m finished to avoid the temptation to play it and put off the book.

I’ve bought plenty of games (and the occasional bottle of champagne) prior to the completion of the book, but it’s kind of fun to have a specific reward in mind, something I’m denying myself until I’m done. Just a way to sweeten what’s already gonna be a pretty great moment (finishing the book).

Got any big plans for your next big novel milestone?


Filed under Writing, Writing Goals