Toys in Games, Games as Toys, and Action Henk as Both, with Roel Ezendam

ETAO Podcast, Episode 20.


Action Henk is out (of Steam Early Access) today, and to celebrate, here’s my conversation with Roel Ezendam of RageSquid Games.

Action Henk is a game about momentum, perfectionism, and making things that actually are as amazing as we remember things being in our childhoods—not just recapturing former glory, but surpassing it. Or to put it another way, Action Henk is the game that we all expect Sonic the Hedgehog to be, but that it never quite is. Or it’s Sonic by way of Trials, maybe.

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Roel is the kind of guy who gets deep into the nerdery of in-game physics (albeit mostly in Dutch rather than English), and who talks consummately and lucidly about the hard science behind that most squishily of goals, making it feel good to control a character. (For Roel, this comes down to thinking of the player-character as a “toy” within the game, compelling even without gameplay context).

It’s such a tough thing to pin down, and yet it’s what puts Action Henk a cut above—and for that matter, it’s the main that separates Super Mario World from Shaq-Fu. Powerful stuff, then.

———
• Here’s that thing Ben Kuchera said about Spelunky. That quote was on my mind because Gabe Durham used it in his work on Bible Adventures for Boss Fight Books (which he also runs, and which is quite worth checking out).

• I haven’t written about Lethal League (yet), but it and Gang Beasts do both come highly recommended.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Henk’s Theme” from the Action Henk original soundtrack, by Wiklund.

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On the Semi-Unspoilability of Infinifactory, with Zach Barth

ETAO Podcast, Episode 19.


Zach Barth returns for a spoiler-centric look at a game where spoilers arguably don’t not even matter, his absolutely delightful engineer-’em-up Infinifactory. Mechanically, the game is in one sense unspoilable. Sure, seeing a solution to a given puzzle takes an open-ended head-scratcher and turns it into a set of IKEA furniture, but there’s still a process of building, and at least potentially a process of learning. And you’re only ever seeing a solution, never the solution.

The issue of narrative spoilers gets a bit more complicated. Just as SpaceChem offers a an allegory for humanist thought (as Zach said last time we talked), so too does Infinifactory offer and allegory for—well, again, that would be spoiling it.

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Infinifactory is about to be officially released from early access, but given that you’ve been able to play the game in near-finished form for quite a while now, what does it mean, really, that it’s about to be “released?”

The experience of releasing a game from Early Access into Right On Time Access is something that Zach and I will save for Part 3 in our series of interview—did I mention that we’re going to do a Part 3 in our series of interviews?—while this time ’round we talk about the Early Access experience itself, the drive to build beautiful things in a game ostensibly about utilitarian efficiency, and the origins of handsome animated Infinifactory gifs like the one above.

Seriously, by the way, in case you care: brimming with spoilers.

———
The Infinifactory subreddit really is a thing of wonder.

• And The Zachtronics Podcast really is off to a rollicking start.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” by George and Ira Gershwin, performed by Richard Glazier.
“Ragging the Scale” by Edward B. Claypoole, performed by Conway’s Band.

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Games That Don’t Exclude and Foxes That Don’t Talk, with Erin Robinson

ETAO Podcast, Episode 18.


Erin Robinson of Ivy Games stops by to discuss Gravity Ghost, her work teaching game design at Columbia College Chicago, talking animals, not-talking animals, and the previously untapped power fantasy of terraforming planets with one’s long, beautiful hair.

I was really taken with Gravity Ghost from the first time I played it and, as I mention in the interview, the ending made me feel the need to snuggle my beloved game-designing dog for quote a while. It’s affecting, this game.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but my hair really is quite stunning.

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———
• David Sedaris made that comment about talking-animals-as-shorthand in this Daily Show interview on his book Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

• And that BoJack Horseman quote came from this AMA.

• And here’s that interview that Erin did with the Phoenix Examiner.

• Yep, Frozen Synapse is still two-for-one, presumably forever. So that’s neat.

• I’ll go ahead and link that incredible Leigh Alexander talk again.

• For those unfamiliar with Cory Archangel’s Super Mario Clouds. (Seeing a screening of that in a class at UChicago was a surreal experience, to say the least).

• Ian Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames contains useful definitions of artgames and prodecuralism, a reframing of the David Carr/Clay Shirky dichotomy, and some helpful, hopeful words on the issue of “gamer identity.”

• Here’s Don Cheadle telling you not to be an actor and Charles Bukowski instructing “young men” not to be poets.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Terraforming” / “Flower Girl” from the Gravity Ghost Soundtrack by Ben Prunty.

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On the Art of the Anti-Puzzle, with Zach Barth

ETAO Podcast, Episode 17.


Infinifactory feels like SpaceChem for the world that Minecraft hath wrought—which makes sense, given that it’s the latest from Zach Barth, who both masterminded SpaceChem and ushered in the Blocks ‘n Voxels Age with his seminal “infinifranchise” (Zach’s competitive mine-’em-up Infiniminer was the direct inspiration for Minecraft, and well, after Minecraft came the flood).

“They’re all terrible,” Zach said of his infinigames when I spoke to him. I respectfully disagree (and he’s at least half-joking anyway), but his larger point stands: Notch took Infiniminer and made “something totally different and totally better.” Infiniminer sees Zach attempting something totally different and totally better, as well, building on his older work in unexpected ways.

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Zach has been making games since those murky, pre-Kickstarter, “pre-Braid” days when, in his words, “nobody made money on indie games.” We’re now living in a world very different from that world, and Infinifactory sees Zach diving into the latter day indie development space with aplomb. (This means adding a layer of audiovisual and interface polish—again in his words, “making a game that doesn’t look like crap, and actually looks like something that you might like to give a shot to. Zach is a self-deprecating guy).

And also, Zach is a very chill guy.

You may quote me.

———
• Matthew Burns did in fact give us both that remarkable and highly useful article on “consumer-kings” and the Infinifactory soundtrack.

• Here’s Jay Allen on “this clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work”.

• And here’s Leigh Alexander on how gamer culture is sort of stuck in 1990, and what specifically she means by that is utterly fascinating and hugely important.

• I grabbed Max Barry’s Lexicon and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. I’m excited to read both. Do also consider checking out John Darnielle’s fairly spectacular novel, Wolf in White Van. And pretty much everything by William Gibson, obviously.

• And people, Over the Garden Wall really is just amazing.

• Toni Morrison was indeed the one who said the thing about being a conduit. Here’s what got me thinking about that idea recently.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by Spike Jones and His City Slickers.
“Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott, performed by The Raymond Scott Quintette, from the Microphone Music anthology.

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All That Glitters Is Not Goblin, with Dan Teasdale

ETAO Podcast, Episode 16.


Dan Teasdale stops by to talk about Roundabout, the debut game from his newly-founded two-person indie studio No Goblin. We discuss the game (which is awfully good), his previous work on Destroy All Humans! and the Rock Band series, and why we both love The Jackbox Party Pack.

And yes, he does divulge the origins of the name “No Goblin.” I then proceed to get kind of obsessed with Dan’s colloquial use for the word “goblin.” Sorry again if that got weird for you, Dan.

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Roundabout is a game about driving an ever-revolving stretch limousine through an open urban/suburban landscape—an activity that is amusing as hell to learn, remarkably satisfying to master, and physically nonsensical in the videogamiest of ways—with a sweeping story in the style of Behind the Music, told through purposefully dodgy full motion video.

There’s really nothing at all like Roundabout, in other words. It’s funny, heartfelt, genuinely original, and audaciously weird. Count me all the way in.

———
• Here are Dan’s ten favorite games of 2014, as written up for Giant Bomb.

• I hunted down a (definitely totally not emulated) copy of Kuru Kuru Kururin, and just as Dan says, it’s exacting beyond all reason. Like, seriously.

• The Men of Game Dev Calendars for 2014 and 2015 are still available.
———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Walking Sunshine,” from the Roundabout Original Soundtrack.
“Bass Groove 01″ by Brendan O’Shea, from the Roundabout Original Soundtrack.

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Work-of-Art-as-Gateway-Drug (and How the Internet Will Hopefully Solve Everything), with Jack Lawrence Mayer

ETAO Podcast, Episode 15.


When I interviewed Jack Lawrence Mayer for UChicago Arts back in 2102, he was about to launch Single Long, his seven-episode digital series for HBO. His latest project, LA Famous, follows the same basic format—but he’s produced it without the backing of HBO or, for that matter, any other network or studio.

So this week, Jack Lawrence Mayer stops by to discuss his work, his overall mission “to do shows without permission,” and the implications of that mission: Isn’t it exciting that we can make things and put them out there without anybody having to put up huge amounts of money? Definitely. But also, isn’t it a little terrifying that so much work now gets produced without any expectation of money changing hands, like, ever? Again, definitely, definitely.

LA Famous

We also take some time to discuss the Jack’s new Monday Morning Movies podcast, the importance of being told no, how a lower budget is something that’s easier to hear than to see, and the utterly indefensible ending of Grease!

Plus, we tear into the noxious archetype of the good guy—or rather, the nice guy—protagonist who’s just been dumped by some cruel, incomprehensible woman. She is tearing [the straight male protagonist] apart, Lisa!

Yeah, Jack wants to react against that trope. Fuck that trope.

———
• I use the terms “digital series” and “web series” interchangeably in the intro, but Jack does mention that he prefers the former for LA Famous and Single Long.

• That period of wakefulness was sometimes called “dorveille.” Quoth WikiPedia, “This was also a favorite time for scholars and poets to write uninterrupted, whereas still others visited neighbors, had sex, or engaged in petty crime.”

WikiPedia also tells us that “the nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with a considerable cult following and strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data.”

• “There have been eras that took a far more intense interest in spectacles of cruelty than ours, but none that was so transfixed by watching people act like assholes,” says Geoffrey Nunberg of the UC Berkeley School of Information.

• Shane Carruth’s second film is called Upstream Color, and it’s just as weird and wonderful as I’m describing, I promise.

• Louis CK’s first movie (before Pootie Tang, even) was Tomorrow Night.

• The only Magic Johnson Theater still open for business is the one in Harlem. It’s currently owned and operated by AMC.

• I think I combined “glib” with “gloom and doom” to form “gloob and doom.” You heard it here first.

• As Jack says, High Maintenance is very much worth checking out.

• And do absolutely give Yasujirō Ozu a go.

———

LA Famous

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Jazz De Luxe (1919)” by Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band.
“I’m in the Mood for Love” by Vera Lynn with The Casini Club Orchestra.
“Knockin’ at the Famous Door” by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra.
“Do What You Can To Shine” by Steven Brent, performed by Jenn Romero.

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Making a Sequel to Chess and Making Sense of IP Law, with Zac Burns

ETAO Podcast, Episode 14.

 
Zac Burns of Ludeme Games joins me to discuss his studio’s digital adaptation of Chess 2, which is out on OUYA, and as of today, on Steam as well. Along the way, we talk about the challenges of translating tabletop games into videogames, the (many) problems with modern intellectual property and copyright law, and why the OUYA has been and remains such a welcoming space for first-time independent game developers.

That, and why free-to-play is not, in and of itself, the devil.

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Chess 2: The Sequel is just what it purports to be, namely a sequel to Chess. Not just a variant of Chess, mind you, but an attempt at an iterative sequel that builds on the original game’s much-lauded merits (deep, chance-free, intellectually demanding one-one-one confrontation) while eliminating or mitigating its key deficiency (an emphasis on strategic stasis and rote memorization).

Chess doesn’t have an author as such. Chess 2 does. Which raises all manner of odd questions about ownership, tradition, culture, subculture, and yes, sequels.

———

Here are the rules of Chess 2. You can download them for free, or kick in a $5 “tip” if you so choose—and as Zac says, you can try the game out with nothing more exotic than a regular old Chess set and some loose change.

• As Zac says, we recorded this interview on Independence Day. Yay America.

• For those interested in the Aereo case.

• WordPress was indeed hiding some of the older episodes from iTunes, Stitcher, Podbay, and so on. That should be fixed now, and you can always see our whole back catalog of podcasty delights right here on ye olde blog.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“General Lavine” from Preludes, Book 2, by Claude Debussy.
“I’m in the Mood for Love” by Vera Lynn with The Casini Club Orchestra.
Nocture in D Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2, by Frédéric Chopin.

Both piano pieces were performed by Paul Pitman, and the recordings are available for free on Musopen.

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Lizardry, Technology, and What to Call Roguelikes, with Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett

ETAO Podcast, Episode 13.

 
At first glance, A Wizard’s Lizard doesn’t seem like a roguelike-alike, but more specifically like a Binding of Isaac-alike, what with its distinctive combination of Zelda and Smash TV. But on closer inspection, A Wizard’s Lizard is a fairly different beast, owing more to A Link to the Past than to the original Legend of Zelda, and not exactly riding Isacc’s nightmarish coattails—more drawing from a common pool of Spelunky-afflicted design DNA.

Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett, the team behind A Wizard’s Lizard and the Lostcast, stop by to discuss their creation, the lizardry (sorry) behind its systems, the cult of Spelunky, and all manner of things that the three of us all really roguelike. (I’m so, so sorry).

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———

• Tiny Speck did indeed put all of Glitch’s assets not just into Creative Commons, but into the public domain.

• That Clay Shirky quote is from Here Comes Everybody.

Lars Doucet coined the term “Procedural Death Labyrinth.”

• For more about how games teach through their level design, take a gander at Anna Anthropy’s “Level Design Lesson” series, and also Extra Credits’ new “Design Club” series.

• Great Caesar’s ghost! There is a new Sequelitis about Zelda! (And it was in fact just two days old when we recorded this podcast).

• If you’re keeping score, Egoraptor hates Skyward Sword considerably more than I do, but still probably less than Alex Preston does.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“A Wizard’s Lizard” and “Buy Me Something!” from the A Wizard’s Lizard Original Soundtrack by Joshua Morse.

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The Oddness of Art and the Forgotten History of Sound, with Lila Newman

ETAO Podcast, Episode 12.

 
Self-described Actor/Writer/Comedian/Musician/Plant-Owner Lila Newman stops by to discuss her piece-in-progress about Ora B. Nichols—one of the most influential artists of early radio, and specifically of early radio sound effects.

You’ve heard Nichols’ work if you’ve ever heard the the 1938 version of The War of the Worlds. You know, the one produced by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air. The one that may or may not have freaked people all the way out when it was first broadcast. That one.

But despite being involved in something so iconic, Nichols herself is largely unknown and borderline-ungoogleable. At least in part, that’s because we don’t talk nearly enough about the history of radio, or of sound in general—and that’s because the aesthetics of radio have taught us all how to hear, to the point that we take those aesthetics for granted.

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Lila Newman walks me through a bit of that history, and along the way we talk about her work on A Prairie Home Companion, the endless oddness of making art (for lack of a better term) for a living, why not all performance art consists of “crying and punching meat,” and the importance of discussing women who did great work without essentializing or over-emphasizing their gender.

Also, we talk about Imposer Syndrome, which is quickly becoming a theme around here. (Ahem, and also-ahem).

———

• As I mention in the intro, arts.uchicago.edu made this interview possible. You can read my piece on Lila’s work and the Edes Prize over there, and the edited, narrative version of the interview is on SoundCloud.

• I mispronounce Descartes as “Dis cart” and Edes as “Eddie’s. And I say “Nakobov.” Ah well.

• Here again—hard to post it too often, really—is a link to the live Radiolab about The War of the Worlds.

• If you’re so inclined, you can go and listen to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, as well as some of The Mercury Theater on the Air’s other productions.

• And here’s that perform-your-own-4’33” app.

• On the topic of trading in unhealthy compulsions for health(ier) compulsions, see also: Thomas Lennon talking about video game addiction/compulsion with The Indoor Kids.

• The interview mentions that Lila’s dad is a sound effects man, but neglects to mention that he is the rather great Fred Newman.

Binaural recording is interesting stuff, and more people than you might think are giving it a whirl.

• Seriously, get out a pair of headphones to listen to Lila’s binaural recordings.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
Sound effects and ambient binaural recordings by Lila Newman.

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Evaluating Transistor

ETAO Podcast, Episode 11.

 
Transistor is Supergiant Games’ follow-up to Bastion—not a sequel, and definitely not a rehash, but just as definitely an iteration, a more refined approach to the same set of themes and gameplay ideas.

This time, the the skill system is a dizzyingly intricate mutation of Materia, rather than a more standard weapon combination system. This time, the beautiful ruined environment is a cohesive cyberpunk maybe-machine world, rather than a catch-all ersatz frontier setting. This time, Logan Cunningham is talking to you not as a semi-disembodied narrator, but as—well, spoilers follow.

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———

• Lucio refers several times to me interviewing Alex Preston of Heart Machine, and also to my conversation with Richard Terrell of Critical Gaming.

• I refer several times to Experience Points’ excellent Transistor debrief.

• For more on Apple-as-the-death-of-technoegalitarianism, look into the ignominious death of HyperCard.

• I didn’t know a damn thing about HyperCard until I read Anna Anthropy’s superb book on ZZT and the half-forgotten history of homemade videogames.

———

“All The People Say” by Carpe Demon.
“Impossible” from the Transistor Original Soundtrack by Darren Korb.

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