Not Games Writing: The Opposite of the Bucket List

Not Games Writing is our regular look at stories, articles, breaking news, video features, and beyond that we think will impact your industry, your craft, and maybe even how you view the world.

Scott Jones is a talented games writer: His work inspired this author to enter games media–among pursuing other passions–after meeting him in person. It was the stories of his time at a “men’s sophisticate” magazine–and how he escaped that world–that inspired, and his presentation at TEDx follows these same lines, though I’m not sure the connection was intended.

After having a series of small strokes, Scott was sidelined, forced to face rehabilitation for weeks. His new attitude–is it that new for him?–is quite the opposite of a traditional bucket list.

Jools Watsham Thinks Reviews Are A Mess And So Can You!

Kingmaker Press Editorial Board

Renegade Kid co-founder Jools Watsham thinks videogame reviews are a mess. We disagree. After the break is our (needlessly detailed) response to Mr Watsham, which argues:

A. Readers are intelligent. Let’s celebrate that!

B. The promotion of individual writers’ voices over a unified brand is laudable.

(Note: Naturally, we haven’t responded to every single line. Naturally. Go read the full text, then come back.)

Why Until Dawn is the Multiplayer Game of the Year

Image Credit: Sony (promotional)

Writing for Paste, Ashley Barry argues for Until Dawn to be the best multiplayer game of the year. There’s a catch, though: it’s a single player game.

Her argument reminds me of tension-filled nights in my university house, surrounded by my roommates cheering me on as I dashed into a chainsaw with the titular Escape Goat, or another night where, surrounded by Chrysallids, I fired a rocket in a daring move…right at one of my teammates. The gasps from my roommates as they realized I wiped out the threat, and my soldier miraculously survived, is one of my favourite gaming moments.  XCOM rules.

Barry argues for Until Dawn as something of a spectator’s game like I’ve discussed above:

Have you ever thrown your hands up in frustration and vented to someone about how that same teenager, now chopped into a billion little pieces, perished because they failed to listen to your sagely advice? When a horror movie character refuses to acknowledge the viewer and makes one poor decision after the next, it’s nice to have someone to complain to. Horror movies are more interactive than almost any other kind of film, and Until Dawnunderstands why. As we would if we were watching a horror movie, my boyfriend and I grew closer while playing Until Dawn.

It’s an interesting case, certainly, though the best multiplayer? We need to get the author a copy of Splatoon. Stat.

Read the rest here.

GGW Original: Condra’s Call of Duty Custodian (2015)

This is the Call of Duty Custodian, Adam H. Condra’s annual examination of the Call of Duty series, and how it maintains its persistent appeal.

“I think I liked Ghosts better.”

Those were the first words out of my mouth when I finished Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. As I recall, I duped myself into thinking that Ghosts was all a brilliant metaphor for the inevitable decline of this series (in reality, it was just a short campaign with a really terrible cliffhanger ending, and the recently deposed nadir of the series). Black Ops 3 isn’t a metaphor for anything, which is ironic, because it attempts to be the most thematically resonant and profound CoD game in history. Unfortunately, dreadful plotting, wretched characters, and the worst dialogue in the series hijack every salvageable asset.

Image Credit: Activision (promotional)

Image Credit: Activision (promotional)

I played through Black Ops 3 twice, because the campaign offers a persistent set of tactical abilities that level up and expand the approach to combat over the course of the story. These abilities, dubbed “cyber cores,” allow players to, for example, increase their speed on the battlefield, disable enemy robots, or unleash a swarm of incendiary nanobots that terrorize the enemy.

Though the cyber cores enrich the standard Call of Duty combat loop, they also prolong the replayability of Black Ops 3 in a way that almost feels spiteful, like when the South Park gang attain the Sword of a Thousand Truths in World of Warcraft and Cartman quips, “Now we can finally play the game!” Similarly, by the time I had played enough to unlock the full suite of Black Ops 3’s gameplay elements I couldn’t stomach another minute playing it.

A digression: I hate Jacob Hendricks.

I hate him so much. He’s the “Sargeant Follow” of Black Ops 3’s campaign, and he’s one of the worst, most obnoxious characters ever brought to life in a videogame. I would rather play this campaign with Navi from The Legend of Zelda; I would rather play it with Rico from Killzone; I would rather play it with that Danny DeVito dude from Bayonetta. In the grand pantheon of sidekicks, Hendricks makes Kaiden from Mass Effect look like Chewbacca. He’s a flavorlessly intense meathead, whose persistent exasperation is never explained clearly in the script, and his deep friendship with the Player is constantly referenced yet never developed. There are multiple scenes in this game where the Player and Hendricks take turns accusing the other of betrayal–why is never clear– and their response is to punch each other in the face, like that’s a natural part of conversation or something.

Hendricks is also the centerpiece of the most idiotic, ham-fisted comment on transhumanism and the pitfalls of technological enhancement I’ve ever encountered. It involves a candy bar, and the level of grave sincerity on display in the moment has to be seen to be believed.

The blame for this lies at the feet of the storytelling.

This goes for the campaign as a whole. On my second playthrough, I attempted to read the story as a comedy, to find anything that would undercut just how damn seriously this game takes itself, but it’s impossible. Black Ops 3 possesses none of the series’ trademark pitch-black irony. There’s no moment of clarity in which the characters realize for a brief moment that their actions as warriors will achieve nothing of true goodness. In the post-WWII era, Call of Duty is consistently a subversively anti-war series, in which its heroes and villains are subtly revealed to be agents of futility operating within the concept of war itself. Modern Warfare did this in the nuke sequence, Modern Warfare 3 did it by fully revealing Captain Price’s psychopathy, Black Ops did it with Reznov’s plot-driving hallucinations, Black Ops 2 had the grimly humorous “we are all going to hell” bit, and even in Advanced Warfare, the most straightforward and purely entertaining Call of Duty, the idea that soldiers will always be puppets incapable of affecting noble change is repeatedly hammered home.

Black Ops 3 places itself in the perfect position to close the book on this concept. The question of this column every year is “how does this game move Call of Duty forward?” and that’s usually a question of theater. Well, they’ve tackled World War II, the War on Terror, and the corporate warfare of Private Military Contractors. Where do they go from here?

Black Ops 3 posits that global conflict isn’t a battle for resources or geopolitical power, but for the hearts and minds of soldiers themselves. What if the literal “call of duty” is a compulsive, self-destructive instinct that the men and women of the armed services all share? Black Ops 3 brings this idea to life, telling a story about soldiers who are slowly overtaken by the cybernetic AI that enhances them, their humanity brutally stripped away from within.

Image Credit: Activision (promotional)

Image Credit: Activision (promotional)

Boldly, Black Ops 3 asserts that the only battleground this series really has left to go is within the consciousness of soldiers themselves, where the laws and patterns of the physical world cease to apply. The final three levels of the campaign are pure sci-fi, taking place inside worlds constructed by the plot’s villainous rampant AI program, “Corvus.” In one moment, you’re fighting in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and in the next, you’re on a frozen, ethereal tundra, fighting amid floating buildings and bioluminescent trees that look like brain synapses. It’s a trippy, ballsy series of levels, and provides encouraging proof that, contrary to the popular narrative, Call of Duty still has plenty of creative juice left in the tank.

Frustratingly, the execution simply isn’t there. On paper, Black Ops 3 sounds like a masterpiece in the same league as BioShock (indeed, many of the cyber core abilities are functionally similar to that series’ plasmids), a grand crescendo for a series that has made its bones exploring the outlandish conspiracies that can only be inspired by the world of off-the-books espionage. In reality though, it’s maddeningly confusing, poorly explained, and unnecessarily complicated. For goodness’ sake, Treyarch hired Christopher Meloni, an actor whose natural magnetism is perfectly suited for underwritten roles, and here he shows up too sporadically to understand his motivations or his plight. Likewise, Corvus isn’t introduced until the final level, and it’s played as if he’s a godlike, SHODAN-type character. 10 minutes of screen time in a 10 hour game is an utter joke, and Corvus couldn’t fall flatter if the game was in 2D.

I could go on, about the comparatively sedate set-pieces, the complete abandonment of Black Ops 2’s innovative campaign design, and the drinking game I made up involving a sip for every cliché that comes out of Hendricks’ mouth (Editor’s Note: Don’t try this at home.), but the point is made. Black Ops 3 is an ambitious game full of great concepts, but it feels like it was written by the proverbial infinite monkey typing pool, enjoying a pit stop in the lower elementary years before making their way towards Shakespeare.

If nothing else, the state of Call of Duty in 2015 is still quite secure, but with misfires like this and Ghosts, the prognostication that the series peaked with Black Ops 2 becomes harder and harder to deny. I don’t believe that’s the case, though, because Black Ops 3 shows a true willingness to go there, to ask messy questions and provide messy answers. It wants to be about something, man, and if this instinct is adopted in stronger reserve by Call of Duty as a whole, there’s no telling how high this series can go again. All it takes is execution.

Adam Condra is the past curator and Editorial Director of GoodGamesWriting.

GGW Originals appear regularly on our website. If you’d like to pitch one, or to report a typo, please email us: admin [at] goodgameswriting [dot] com

Indie Survival: An Animated Tale of Sticks, Shoes, and Zombie Vikings

Words: Tristan Ettleman

Swedish developer Zoink Studios, developer of 2013’s Stick It to the Man, has worked on many projects.

Many of them haven’t been games, though.

After getting burned by a publishing deal gone wrong, founder, CEO, and creative force Klaus Lyngeled steered the Zoink ship in a different direction for a time, one that led to animation work for brands like LG and Nike.

Lyngeled did, however, start in game development.

“I started the company [Zoink] because I wanted to make a video game. It was called The Kore Gang,” Lyngeled stated in a Skype interview. The Kore Gang originally began development as an original Xbox game, in the vein of 3D platformers like Ratchet & Clank. “But the Xbox wasn’t really for that type of game,” Lyngeled said, and after three years of development, the game was put on hold by its publisher, which also changed a number of times.

Five years later, in 2010, the game was released in Germany, but Lyngeled didn’t really have much of a hand in the conversion for the new platform.

“There were a lot of things that I wasn’t really happy with, that I would have done differently,” he said of the final version. “But I was happy it somehow got released.”

Still, Lyngeled was unsatisfied with the way the whole project had turned out. He told me, not without a sense of humor, that he had said to himself, “Fuck this, I’m not working on this anymore, this is too complicated.” He effectively “quit the whole game thing,” and started by making an animated short film called “Munchie Mondays”.

“But that led me to wanting more animation work, and it’s hard to find that,” Lyngeled said. Still, he and Zoink found it, albeit in the low ­paying field of animated music videos.

Eventually, though, a New York agency that had seen Munchie Mondays ended up being the portal to higher level jobs for the studio. Through them, Zoink was hired on to do animation for a number of commercials.

“That led to us doing stuff like the Nike video,” Lyngeled explained. The 30­second spot features a woman transforming into an animated, “cubified” character and traversing a fantastical world that screams Stick It to the Man. Naturally, Lyngeled did all the character designs.

“That was really fun to do,” Lyngeled reminisced, but did clarify that other projects were “just to make money, like Burger King commercials…Sometimes, you have to do some jobs that basically make you money.”

Some companies started to come to Zoink with projects because of the studio’s distinct style, and LG’s Times Square billboard, featuring a character representative of this style, was one of those projects.

Despite the pressure associated with doing work for such big brands, Lyngeled didn’t see it as more restrictive as his work on The Kore Gang. “I think there are a lot of creative people in advertisement that are thinking a lot differently than what you are [thinking] in games,” he said.

Still, Lyngeled took notice of the changes in the video game industry. “Suddenly I was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of creative to be back in the games business again,’” he exclaimed.

“Because when I quit…the only games that were selling were AAA games. Nothing in between or under it.”

Lyngeled saw that change as an opportunity to come back to game development. Zoink started its video game comeback with a Wii game called WeeWaa, and tried out the iOS platform with games like EnergyMix and Swing King while also doing regular animation jobs.

Stick It to the Man, a game influenced by Lyngeled’s love for Tim Burton, Monkey Island, and Ren & Stimpy, was ultimately the turning point for Zoink.

“It was exactly what I wanted to do. It turned out precisely as I wanted it to be,” he said of the final result.

Since Stick It to the Man, Zoink has been focused on game development entirely. For Lyngeled, it’s because he feels “right now that there is room for being creative.” For the foreseeable future, Zoink will be sticking where it started. The studio is not only finishing up updates on action brawler game Zombie Vikings, which carries Stick It to the Man’s art style and humor, but also a full 3D, much more serious game that Lyngeled couldn’t really say much more about.

All the projects Zoink has in the pipeline are unique, and Lyngeled acknowledged that might stem from his experience with The Kore Gang. “I don’t want to get stuck in the same thing…Since The Kore Gang, I basically decided I don’t want to do a game that takes more than a year to do. I never want to end up in that situation again. It’s too long and nothing happens. I mean, if you lose a year, it’s fine. But if you lose three or four years, it’s horrible.”

He didn’t totally rule out returning to old ideas, though. “We might make a number two or a sequel to games at some point,” he said.

Zoink’s trajectory has changed a few times throughout its existence, and it has changed with both the games industry and the vision of its founder. As Lyngeled said, “It’s been the same company all the time, it’s just changed a little bit depending on what I wanted to do as a project.”

That’s evident with Zombie Vikings, which released on PlayStation 4 and PC on September 1.

The game continues Stick It’s paper­thin character design and humorous approach, but it’s clearly a new realm for Zoink.

Stick It was essentially a point­-and-­click adventure game, whereas Zombie Vikings is a sidescrolling brawler in the vein of genre classics like Golden Axe.

That is, if Golden Axe was about Odin reviving zombie vikings to retrieve his stolen eye from Loki.

Zombie Vikings immediately brings the jokes and references, with an underwhelming order from Odin to get his eye back just because he wants it, not because it’s a matter of the universe’s life or death.

The first level features Earthworm Jim­like enemies (an inspiration for Lyngeled and a product of his former employer Shiny Entertainment), and a hippie zombie spouting anti­materialistic proverbs.

But Zombie Vikings also places more emphasis on gameplay systems, with multiple characters with special moves and unlockable weapons and abilities. It’s certainly the most complex game Zoink has made, in spite of the simplicity of its moment ­t o­moment gameplay.

If Lyngeled’s comments on Zoink’s next game is indication, it’s only the start of the studio’s advancement.

Tristan Ettleman is a freelance writer. You can find him on Twitter @ettletodd.

GGW Originals appear regularly on our website. If you’d like to pitch one, or to report a typo, please email us: admin [at] goodgameswriting [dot] com

Every Last One

Gears of War 3 carmine banner

In light of  Microsoft’s marketing for the remake of the Gears of War series, Kill Screen writer Ethan Gach dissects the marketing strategy that’s been used for the series. Specifically, Gach writes how Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ song, “Mad World” used in the game’s marketing fits—or rather doesn’t—with the title that merged the disparate worlds of chainsaw massacre with urban warfare.

 

Looking back at some of the writing that came out closer to the games’ original release, one can find similar critiques of its violence. Anjun Anhat, whose blog is very straightforwardly titled How to Not Suck at Game Design, discusses how the series’s tone is eerily reminiscent of propagandistic calls for genocide.

 

On the more mechanically driven end of analysis, this “first-impressions” piece of the Gears of War 3 beta by Patricia Hernandez offers a more deliberate analysis of how movement and actions feel in the game that, in retrospect, offer a useful comparison to the pieces above.

Good Games Writing establishes “PitchJam Fund” with Donation

Good Games Writing establishes “PitchJam Fund” with Donation

Funds will be used to promote work that may not otherwise find a home.

Lethbridge, AB–Good things come to those who read Good Games Writing (GGW), or, at least, those who pitch it. GGW is pleased to announce that a private $500 donation has been made available to the organization for the purposes of a “PitchJam Fund” that will go towards the solicitation of pitches for professional games writing content. Plans are in place to replenish the fund regularly.

The generous donation comes to GGW via a private individual formerly involved with the PitchJam event, which gathers professional games media freelancers and editors, who donate their time to provide high-quality critique to up-and-coming writers, after witnessing the value of events like this firsthand.

“This first of its kind donation to GGW will go to commissioning articles of all types that may not otherwise find a home,” says acting Editorial Director, Evan McIntosh. “This is an investment into writers that will get them started on the right foot, and extends our mandate of developing writers further. We are deeply humbled to be receiving such a commitment.”

Pieces commissioned by the fund will be featured on goodgameswriting.com, ad-free, after a rigorous editing process meant to challenge writers to grow, improve, and refine their writing.

“While a monetary donation such as this is impressive, it’s not the only donation we’ve been blessed to receive. This weekend, 13 professionals donated their time and knowledge to enhance the voices and skills of developing writers during #PitchJam 3. Without donations such as these GGW would not survive, let alone thrive. We are truly blessed to work alongside such talented individuals.”

Outreach Director, Joseph Knoop, adds “It means the world to us that games journalism professionals believe in Good Games Writing‘s cause to make donations of any kind. We rely on the goodwill and professionalism of many talented writers and editors to build this next generation of journalists, and #PitchJam and the new PitchJam Fund are more examples of how our efforts reap tangible growth.”

“With the success of our 3rd annual Pitch Jam we’ve been able to reach a brand new generation of games writers and provide them with the opportunities only professional experience and collaborative spirit can obtain.”

Further details on the PitchJam Fund will be released in the near future along with #PitchJam debriefing.

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Contact:

admin@goodgameswriting.com

 

The future of warfare

Image: Oculus Promotional Image, Fair Use

“How better to address a generation of soldiers raised on FPS games than by mimicking their popular entertainment? That’s the question resident historian and game journalism extraordinaire Robert Rath poses in his profile of author P.W. Singer’s latest novel “Ghost Fleet.” Does Oculus Rift bode ill for our military’s ability to stay focused during briefings? Will generational dispositions to technology create even further gaps? These are just some of the daunting questions explored in Rath’s comprehensive look at one possible glimpse into the future of warfare.”

Read it here.

#PitchJam 3 Is Underway

Welcome to #PitchJam.

From this point on you have 28 hours to submit your pitches. Final pitches are due in at 11 PM August 15, 2015.

All pitches should be sent to thepitchjam@gmail.com. Please package your pitch like you would if you were sending it to a publication. Everything from the format of the pitch proper to the subject line should be a part of the total package you’re sending in. Our expert panel certainly will think it is.

Once your pitch is submitted it will be coded with a unique 5-character ID. Please do not lose this ID as it will serve as both your reference number and unlock other goodies down the road.

Your pitch will be sent to part of the panel for critique–a minimum of one expert, as many as the whole panel (!)–and your feedback will be returned to you as it comes in. Please allow until the 17th as issues always arise in this event.

We can always be reached by tweeting us @GoodWritingVG.

Speaking of, we’re blessed to have the following panelists joining us for PitchJam 3.

We humbly suggest you follow the above panelists. We thank them for their time and dedication to helping the games media community!

Looking for a great resource to show you some good pitches and why they were accepted? Check this out http://fiveoutoftenmagazine.com/2014/07/pitch-jam-three-great-pitches/

Want to join the conversation? We’re back channeling on Twitter all weekend with the #PitchJam hashtag. Join in the conversation in a freelance friendly way.

A number of announcements will be made throughout the event, including potential chats with the panelists, mini-podcasts, and other bits of tid. Stay tuned to this post for more.

Happy pitching!

You’re in the Desert and You See a Tortoise Crawling Toward You…

The Fall evaluator

The podcasting crew at PopMatters‘s “Moving Pixels” section, that is, G. Christopher Williams, Eric Swain and Nick Dinicola, dedicate their latest episode to The SwapperThe Fall and the place of artificial intelligence, both as a concept and as a design element, in videogames. I should probably make you aware that PopMatters is my old stomping ground and these are some of my old colleagues, but like much of their work, I enjoy it immensely and find the discussion useful and enlightening.