So This Crazy Thing Happened on My Street Last Night...

When two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday—killing 3 people and severely injuring more than 100 others—my first thought was a fairly obvious one: "Wow... that could have been us." We've been down to watch the Marathon many times, and it was simply a matter of chance that instead of navigating the crowds in Copley Square, we had chosen to spend this Patriot's Day kicking around at home in Watertown. Had circumstances been just a little bit different, it could easily have been my family and I caught in that blast.

Except, I don't think deep down I really believed that. Even though a major terrorist attack had just happened in my city, my family and friends all turned out to be okay, and somehow I wasn't surprised. After all, I'm the main character in this story, and in my experience these sorts of things happen to other people.

Just your typical mid-day armored surveillance. No big deal.

I'm not sure this kind of narcissistic detachment from reality is particularly healthy, but I bet it's not all that atypical either, and I'm sure the massive amount of time I've spent playing video games in my lifetime has been a factor. Like television and movies, games reinforce our human tendency to distill stories from the randomness and chaos of the universe. We hone our sense of what will and won't happen to a protagonist, which side characters are and aren't expendable, and eventually the whole world appears as a patchwork of overused tropes and predictable plot points.

So inertial was my concept of my own narrative, that when my wife woke me up at 3:00 AM yesterday to tell me that there had been a shootout and explosions here in Watertown, I don't think I was all that concerned. Even when we were informed that we were prisoners in our own homes, even as we drew our shades, locked our doors and windows, and retreated to the second floor of our house, I don't think I felt any real sense of danger. Soon they would catch "Suspect #2", the lockdown would be lifted, and life would return to normal.

But that didn't happen. The governor announced that the lockdown was ending, but that no suspect had been apprehended. Deflated, we began to wander outside to chat with our neighbors and escape the stale air of our shuttered house. Then, sirens began blaring and dozens of police vehicles descended upon our street like it was Nakatomi Plaza, and in an instant my story had veered wildly off course, as though someone was performing very bad (or perhaps very good) improv theater. A firefight erupted about a hundred feet from my house, and I realized it was the first time I had ever heard real gunshots—not Call of Duty sound effects, or the muffled pop of a rifle at a shooting range, but real honest-to-goodness people trying to kill one another. Suddenly my wife and I were laying the floor, cradling our children, and I realized I genuinely didn't know what was going to happen next. This whole thing had gone off the rails, and now I was the guy on the news, and my street was that "somewhere else" I was so used to seeing on the Internet and television.

I took this video from my bedroom window. You can hear the initial barrage of gunfire near the end, right around the time I soil myself.

Fox News, whose excellence in journalism is rivaled only by their excellence in trampling all over our freshly-seeded lawn.

Soon it was over. After spending about two hours crawling around the floor of our house while flooding the Internet with messages to friends and family that we were okay, vehicles began to leave the scene, people began peeking out of their houses, and it became clear the ordeal had ended. Amid a chorus of cheers and thank-yous, the police began turning our neighborhood from a parking lot back into a warren of residential side-streets, and then I really was the guy on the news, giving interviews to local reporters and speaking live on the air with Diane Sawyer.

I spent the next few hours hanging out on my front lawn, drinking bourbon out of a coffee cup and chatting with neighbors about how utterly ludicrous this all was. In the back of my head, though, I was adrift. As a mathematician I know logically that every distribution has its tails, so even very rare events happen from time to time. However, as a human being (especially one who plays a lot of video games), I just don't believe these things happen in the real world—they're supposed to happen on a screen, or in some equally far-off land.

Good Morning, America.

As we wake up this morning, my family and I are unscathed, and the news sites look the way they should look, with a violent terrorist in custody, to be interrogated in some secret location and then tried in some court I'll see on television someday. Ultimately, I imagine my egocentric, story-driven world view will bounce back, especially after I spend some more time with my Xbox, pretending to be a legendary hero who saves the world from some great evil. For today, though, the news vans are still here on Franklin Street, and I'm still feeling adrift in a world where truly anything can happen.

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Metonymy, or Why the Violent Video Game Discussion Is Ridiculous

I used to believe that the path from thought to language traveled only in one direction. It seemed to me that spoken and written words were a poor approximation of the mind's inner workings, a crude limitation of this dreadfully physical plane of existence. Of course, now that I'm older and wiser (or at least just older), I look back on such naively dualist arguments with chagrin. Our minds and bodies, our thoughts and actions—who we are and what we do—these things are deeply intertwined. It's not only the case that how we think affects what we say, but also that what we say affects how we think

There's a well-worn rhetorical device known as "menotymy". In general, the term refers to the use of a word or phrase as a surrogate for a related concept, like calling a businessman a "suit". Its most frequent use by far, though, is when we refer to some collective entity using a simpler, related word, like referring to the American film industry as "Hollywood" or the executive branch of the United States government as "The White House". Like any part of language, metonymy is a mechanism for conveying meaning and processing the world around us. However, when using certain figures of speech—especially very common ones—we need to be conscious of how they subtly change our minds, lest they subvert the clarity of our thought. And while I don't believe that using the term "Hollywood" places us in danger of confusing a $10 billion industry with 25 square miles of movie sets in southern California, I do believe it places us in danger of forgetting that "Hollywood" isn't actually a real thing, but rather sort of a metaphor. The film industry doesn't think as one mind, and it doesn't act as a single entity.

The link between violence and video games has been debated pretty much as long as we've had both violence and video games, though it's periodically reinvigorated by current events. The number of ludicrous arguments I've heard and read about the subject is astounding, and seems to be bounded only by the number of idiots in the world with a microphone or Internet access. Usually these arguments are a cocktail of ignorance and deliberate misinformation, like claiming that the point of Bioshock is to murder "defenseless, cowering girls" or passing off obscure, poorly-made, intentionally provocative Flash games as mainstream media. However, inane ramblings like these aren't what bother me the most about this discussion. What bothers me the most is something much more subtle, yet fundamental: the fact that folks on all sides of the debate keep talking about "violent video games" and "the video game industry" as though these are coherent, well defined concepts. It's as though these terms metonymns for some broader concept, except that the broader concept has never been made clear to anyone, least of all me.

When I read the words "violent video game" in the news, what does it mean? Is it a photo-realistic first-person shooter, like Call of Duty or Battlefield? What about less realistic games like Halo or Gears of War? Does this nebulous category only include games with violence against humans, or does it include crimes against robots, aliens, and/or mushrooms? What about something like the The Binding of Isaac, a game with a charmingly adorable art style and whose disturbing level of violence is largely due to the fact that it draws its inspiration from the brutality of the Old Testament? Similarly, who are we trying to blame for selling this filth to our children? Publishers like Activision or Ubisoft? The developers of AAA games? Indie devs? What about the designer who makes a violent game as a vehicle for social commentary, or the government contractor who develops a serious violent game for the military?

As a researcher myself, I fully support pursuing a greater understanding of the psychological and sociological effects that our ever-evolving media have on our cognitive development, our relationships with one another, and our society as a whole. (Since we're handing out research funding anyway, let's also give more money to cancer research and NASA.) There's some great questions to be answered, like how does imagery of physical violence affect our brains and bodies, and how does interactivity and the agency of the user change these effects? Is there a link between simulating violent acts and aggression, and between aggression and violent acts in practice? Why is obliterating one of my friends in Halo with a rocket launcher so much fun? As we ask these questions, though, we must remember that one of the first and most important lessons of science is attention to detail... and if we don't even fully understand the words we're using to talk about these concepts, then we're a very long way from getting any answers.

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What I've Been Playing

October has been a hell of a month. First of all, on October 20th I completed the Extra Life 24-hour gaming marathon, and (with the help of some very generous friends) raised $1,462 for Boston Children's Hospital. Other exciting events included catching a debilitating stomach virus during which I literally lost a week down the toilet, my son turning four, and a hurricane. And now I realize there's more excitement yet to come, as I look upon this freshly delivered copy of Assassin's Creed III. Here's a rundown of everything (at least, everything video-game-related) that happened this month.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Xbox 360)

It's hard for a pessimist like me to remember this, but sometimes dreams do come true. XCOM: Enemy Unknown—the recent remake/reboot of the 1994 game XCOM: UFO Defense—turned out to be every bit of the experience I hoped it would be, and then some.

Most of what I needed to say I put in my review, but to summarize: Firaxis did a superb job of translating an 18-year-old PC cult classic to a modern console setting, by staying true to the spirit of the original while making some bold changes to the core gameplay. Whether you're a fan of the original, or simply a fan of turn-based strategy, aliens, challenging gameplay, and/or being eviscerated by mutant cyborg space bugs, you should check out XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Bomberman LIVE (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

As I've mentioned in the past, my friends and I have a standing Thursday night Xbox LIVE play-date, brilliantly dubbed "TNGN" (Thursday Night Game Night). Though traditionally staunch Gears of War supporters, we recently began to tire of blowing each other away with sawed-off shotguns, something I genuinely thought we would never tire of.

To break the monotony, last month we dug out our old Halo 3 discs, and soon we were joyriding in Banshees across the Valhalla map like we'd never left. (For a five-year-old game, it holds up incredibly well.) Of course, we quickly realized that with Halo 4 coming out November 6, perhaps we should find another way to spend Thursday nights in October. (Besides, of course, with our families.)

I don't know who mentioned it, but someone pointed out that there was a Bomberman game on Xbox LIVE Arcade, and we were sold. After all, we all remembered that Super Bomberman for the SNES was the ultimate party video game when we were kids. It was easy to learn, difficult to master, fun as all hell, and once the bad blood started to build up after a few rounds of cheap shots and broken alliances, no other game was better at causing a bench-clearing brawl. Good times.

However, before you go out and drop 800 credits ($10) on the XBLA version, a quick word of caution. There literally have been dozens of Bomberman games, and although I'm nowhere near well-versed enough to claim that Bomberman LIVE is the worst among these, I have to believe it's somewhere near the bottom. There's little in the way of single-player options (e.g. no campaign), its menu system is so poorly designed that it almost appears to be intentionally obtuse, and the online support is cumbersome, requiring you to re-invite your party to the game whenever you change the slightest details of the match setup. Having voiced those complaints, I can now say that once you do finally manage to get an eight-player match of Bomberman LIVE working, you realize that playing even a half-assed version of this classic game online with seven of your best friends from around the country is a hell of a good time.

Dishonored (Xbox 360)

I played Dishonored for almost the full 24 hours of my Extra Life marathon, and before I took ill last week, I fully intended to write a review of it. Unfortunately, with Assassin's Creed III now in my hands, a review is seeming somewhat less likely. Nevertheless, I thought it was a high-quality game deserving of some careful discussion, so I'm going to hold off on my comments for the time being, with the hope of publishing a review by the end of the week.

Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Xbox 360)

Like music, televison, or film, finding quality video games that are appropriate for young children can be difficult. However, as is true for the Beatles, Sesame Street, or Pixar movies, some of the best video games transcend generations, appealing to kids and adults alike.

When I first played Lego Star Wars on the PlayStation 2, it was a magical experience. Legos, Star Wars, and video games: three pillars of nerd culture, impossibly combined into a thoroughly enjoyable experience that didn't feel anywhere near as exploitative as it should have.

Unfortunately, like so many wonderful things in this life, I totally forgot about Lego Star Wars until a friend recently reminded me about it. After spending 60 seconds and $20 on Amazon, two days later my son and I were chasing down our lost droids on Tatooine. Now I get to spend quality time with my son while playing a game that's actually fun for an adult.

So that pretty much wraps up October. Now, I'm off to re-fight the American revolution in Assassin's Creed III. If I'm lucky, I'll be so busy patriotically murdering redcoats for the next week that I won't have to see another political ad between now and the election.

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Diary of an XCOM Soldier

The following is an account of my squad's activities during my first 6 hours or so of gameplay of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. A remake of the classic PC strategy game, XCOM asks you to command an elite international task force defending Earth against a mounting extraterrestrial invasion. Pretty much everything I've written here is exactly how it happened in my game (though slightly embellished). I've included a few very minor spoilers, though there's nothing here that should surprise anyone who is familiar with the XCOM series.

1 March 2015 — Operation First Vanguard — Los Angeles, USA

First mission with the new squad, though I'm still in shock from my final one with Delta. Wilson, Lebedev, Matusumoto, and I had been training together for months. They were all better soldiers than me, but somehow I was the only one to survive.

Now I'm with a bunch of rookies. Two American women—a chatty one named Payne and a bull-faced brute named Smith—as well as a Russian medic named Golubev. They didn't stop talking the whole flight about how many "greys" they were going to kill. Well, this was my chance to get some payback for what happened in Germany, and I wasn't going to let a bunch of gossiping rookies get in the way.

The mission went pretty much like clockwork. Smith didn't keep her head down and caught a pretty nasty wound for it, but other than that we took out the hostiles without too much trouble. Before we knew it, the last two aliens were holed up in a small warehouse. Knowing first-hand what these things are capable of, I took the whole place down with my rocket launcher. Problem solved.

5 March 2015 — Operation Secret Gaze — Osaka, Japan

Feeling good about the success of our last mission, command sent us to extract a high-value asset trapped in Osaka. With Smith still laid up, they added a Mexican named Garza to our squad. She's a stone-cold bitch, but an unbelievable shot with a sniper rifle.

We contacted the VIP without too much trouble, but on the way back to the ship we encountered some new type of alien—the "Thin Man". At first they look sort of human, but once they move, you can tell they're anything but. Seeing those freaky bastards with their dead lizard eyes must have rattled me, because I got flanked and took some heavy fire. We got out of there alive, but now I've got 8 days in the med bay to think about my mistake.

15 March 2015 — Operation Patient Justice — Undisclosed Location, USA

One of our interceptors finally took down a UFO! They sent us in to the crash site to clean up and secure some of the alien tech. Just when I was getting used to "Sectoids" and "Thin Men", we ran into a new kind of alien, some kind of being made of crystal and energy. Well, Garza showed us that energy or not, a headshot kills it just as dead as anything else. Actually, maybe deader, since there wasn't much left of the thing afterwards.

I guess I've been doing a good job leading the squad, because after the mission the Commander promoted me to Sergeant. The guys have started calling me "Nova"... I assume because of my explosive personality, or maybe just my temper.

21 March 2015 — Operation Crystal Giant — Bangalore, India

We got sent out to check out reports of an alien bomb in the Bangalore subway. This time the brass said they want us to snag one of the aliens alive. They gave us something the lab cooked up to stun them called an "Arc Thrower", but it only works at close range.

Well, we tried getting close enough to use the damn thing, but it wasn't easy since we were also trying to disable enough power sources to keep the alien bomb from nuking the place. We ended up having to shoot to kill, and got ourselves pretty shot up in the process.

Command was not happy about our failure to bring back a live specimen for interrogation. They made it very clear it was a top priority for our next mission.

28 March 2015 — Operation Empty Hammer — Port Said, Egypt

Another report of alien abductions... this time in a cemetery, of all places. The squad was still beat up from the last mission, so we took a rookie with us, a huge Brazilian dude named Guzman.

I thought I had things under control, but then Golubev (we've been calling him "Doc") got separated from us and ended up trapped in a room with three hostiles closing in. Knowing he was probably done for, he rushed one and zapped it with the Arc Thrower. Then, just before the others got to him, Garza dropped one with an amazing headshot, while Guzman took out the other through a window.

We've started calling Garza "Demon", because if she so much as looks at something, it's dead.

4 April 2015 — Operation Lone Savior — Undisclosed Location, USA

Fucking brass. We brought back a live grey for them, so what did they want next? For us to do the same with one of those goddamn "energy beings".

Well, this was supposed to be a routine crash recovery mission, but it all went to hell. We had the energy being locked down, but when Payne rushed in to take it out, it had its plasma rifle ready. Seeing Payne hit the ground with half her head melted off, I said a big "fuck you" to command and shoved a rocket up that thing's ass, or wherever it is you shove things in a being made of goddamn crystals and energy.

8 April 2015 — Operation Cold Mist — Sapporo, Japan

Another alien abduction. I think the squad is still pretty shook up about Payne. We've got two new recruits, VanDyke and Konig, but no one has paid much attention to them, including me.

We ran into some new aliens again—crazy rocket-powered things we called "Floaters". They move so fast, they even got to Garza in the rear guard. She was bleeding out, and there was no way I could get to her, but I wasn't going to lose another soldier. So, I rushed in like a maniac and mowed down the last two. I took heavy fire, but it was worth it... we got her out of there just in time.

19 April 2015 — Operation Cold Gaze — Melbourne, Austrailia

We must have pissed off the bugs, because they launched an all-out terror attack on Melbourne. We were too late for the initial strike, but we dropped in to try to rescue some of the remaining civilians.

We encountered another new alien, some sort of giant four-legged metal bug that turns people into zombies. No shit... actual zombies. Well, they were in for a surprise, because after a childhood full of video games, I'm pretty damn good at killing zombies. Not only did we take out all of the remaining hostiles, we also managed to save all but 3 of the 18 survivors in the drop zone.

20 April 2015 — Operation Banished Spark — Alexandria, Egypt

Who makes up the stupid code names for these operations?

We were still riding high after kicking ass in Melbourne yesterday, when command sent us in to counter yet another alien abduction. I think we'd be a lot better off if we could get these fuckers before they touch down.

I think VanDyke had something to prove after sitting the bench during yesterday's mission, because she went out there guns blazing. In fact, she got a little too out-of-control, because once she started taking some heavy fire, she started to lose it.

The squad was able to keep it together though, and we brought everyone back alive. I even got promoted to Major. I'm really starting to believe that we can win this thing, and send these bug-eyed monsters back to wherever they came from.

6 May 2015 — Operation Broken Bell — Bangalore, India

Things were quiet for a while, but then they sent us in to deal with another alien abduction. It seemed like a routine mission, so I brought along VanDyke and a rookie named Gusev. But instead of Sectoids or Thin Men, we ran into a totally new kind of alien—these giant, hulking green monsters that you could unload an entire clip on, and they still wouldn't go down.

It was a massacre. We thought we had them pinned down, but then one of the brutes threw some sort of alien grenade. It killed Doc instantly, and messed up VanDyke real bad. Guzev totally lost it and ran off in the opposite direction of the ship, shooting wildly and screaming.

I didn't want to leave Guzev behind, but with VanDyke and Garza both in rough shape and those green monsters closing in, I had to abort the mission. A small, dark part of me hoped that Guzev was already dead, so that we weren't really abandoning him... but then I swear I heard him yelling as we took off.

Maybe this war is going to be a lot worse I thought.

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What I've Been Playing

October is going to be a great month for gaming. Not only am I looking forward to the releases of Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Assassin's Creed III, I'm also eagerly anticipating the 24-hour video game marathon I'm doing on Saturday, October 20th as part of the Giant Bomb team for Extra Life 2012, to benefit Boston Children's Hospital. (Here's the link to my donation page! Give, for the children!)

Of course, even though October appears pretty stacked, September certainly was no slouch. Here's a quick rundown of the games I managed to play last month during the calm before the storm.

Spelunky (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

"Roguelikes" seem to be the hot indie trend for 2012. Unfortunately, I tend to view the genre as the video-game equivalent of the band Wilco: I keep giving them a shot, but for some reason I just can't see why people like them so damn much.

In case you're unfamiliar with it, the term "roguelike" refers to the 1980 Unix game Rogue, which was characterized by certain gameplay elements like an aggressive level of difficulty, randomly generated levels, and permanent character death. Today, these gameplay elements seem to have found a wider audience of people who demand crushingly difficult and frustratingly unpredictable game experiences, because they seem to be popping up in every third indie game that comes out.

One such game is Spelunky, a roguelike action platformer released this summer for Xbox LIVE Arcade. Having never played the original version (which was released for PC in 2009), nor having played any similar games (such as La-Mulana), Spelunky was a new experience for me—an experience that involved dying a gruesome death and restarting the game from the beginning about every 2 to 3 minutes.

After logging a few good hours of play, I did eventually develop some basic Spelunking skills like running, jumping, climbing ropes, dodging spiders, whipping bats, rescuing damsels, murdering shotgun-toting shopkeepers, and not getting impaled by spikes, to the point where I even finally made it to the second of the five major areas in the game. Unfortunately, by that point I'd decided that Spelunky was probably not the game for me, at least not if I wanted to make it to Thanksgiving without hurling my Xbox controller through my TV screen.

The Binding of Isaac (PC / Mac)

By contrast, a roguelike that does it right is The Binding of Isaac, a Steam title from 2011 that I only recently started playing. A deeply disturbed interpretation of the Bible story of the same name, The Binding of Isaac follows the child Isaac as he flees the murderous zealotry of his mother, descending in to a dungeon of unholy terrors armed only with his tears.

Be warned: this game is pretty disturbing.

Gameplay-wise, Isaac is sort of a dungeon-crawling shooter, like a comfortable mix of The Legend of Zelda and Smash TV. As a roguelike, it's certainly difficult, and death is very much permanent; however, what it really captures about the spirit of roguelikes is the element of randomness. Every time I play, I encounter something I've never seen before (and often, something I hope I never see again). Moreover, the game is balanced such that randomness of the powerups and items firmly guides the gameplay, without undermining player skill to the point where you feel like you're simply a sinner in the hands of an angry random-number-generating God.

Mark of the Ninja (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

Having had my fill of indie roguelike self-flagellation, I abandoned for a time playing as either an archeologist with a death wish or a crying child. Instead, I turned to the other extreme: becoming the baddest ninja warrior that has ever existed. Mark of the Ninja is hands-down my favorite XBLA game of the year so far, and may well be my favorite game for 2012 overall. Pretty much everything I wanted to say about the game I put in my recent review, so I think I'll leave it at that. Mark of the Ninja: play it!

Borderlands 2 (Xbox 360)

In my recent Darksiders II review, I claimed that I prefer a game that is too ambitious to one that plays it safe. Well, that claim was put to the test last month by Borderlands 2, which is basically an expanded, more polished version of its predecessor.

Still, sometimes it's the little things, and Borderlands 2 improves a lot of the little things. The difficulty is a little better balanced, the missions are a little less repetitive, the weapons are a little more diverse, and the enemy AI is a little less moronic. All of these little changes—along with some genuinely funny writing—add up to a total Borderlands experience that I've really been enjoying, so much so that perhaps I was full of crap with that whole "respecting games that take risks" nonsense. I'll say more in the review I'll be posting this week, but for now you should know that Borderlands 2 is a pretty solid pick, especially if you either never played or you absolutely loved the original.

So, that was my September. For my October, I'm really only searching for two things: (1) donations to help sick kids, and (2) suggestions for games I could probably win when playing against sick kids. I mean, I'm willing to donate money to help them fight cancer, but I'll be damned if I let those punks beat me at Halo.

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Boston Festival of Indie Games Wrap-Up

Saturday was a gorgeous day, the kind of bright and sunny, yet breezy and temperate weather that makes me love autumn in New England. However, rather than spend outdoors one of the few perfect September days we get here in Boston, I chose to lurk in dark auditoriums and elbow my way through crowded (and by the afternoon, fairly pungent) exhibit halls. Why? Because Saturday, September 22 was Massachusetts Independent Game Development Day, which I spent attending the first ever Boston Festival of Indie Games (Boston FIG).

Co-presented by the MIT Game Lab and the Boston Indies community, the inaugural Boston FIG was a free(!) event showcasing the vibrant indie video and tabletop gaming scene in the New England region. In addition to several lectures, a game jam, an art show, and movie screenings, the exhibition halls boasted more than 30 game demos, primarily from New England indie developers.

After attending a keynote by game journalist and Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander, I decided to brave the exhibit halls (and by "exhibit halls" I mean "crowded MIT classrooms") to check out some of the local talent. Here are a few of the games that caught my eye.

Lost Marbles

After the keynote, I plunged headlong into the exhibition throng and gravitated to the first game that caught my eye. Lost Marbles is an homage to the classic SNES action-puzzle game Lost Vikings, reimagined by developer Binary Takeover as a 3D Marble Madness style game (hence the name "Lost Marbles").

I think the reason the marbles were lost was because I kept accidentally steering them into the abyss.

I enjoyed the clean, bright cel-shaded graphics (which I thought really worked for this kind of puzzle game), but I honestly had trouble telling if Lost Marbles was actually fun or not. I found the controls to be pretty twitchy, and I spent most of my time driving my marbles off the narrow paths they were supposed to be traversing. After a few dozen restarts, I scraped together what was left of my dignity and went off to look for something that demanded a little less in the fine-motor-skills department.

Girls Like Robots

Hoping to purge myself of the stink of failure, I looked around for a game that might play more to my strengths. Enter Popcannibal's iOS title Girls Like Robots, a self-proclaimed "romance, adventure, puzzle game about seating arrangements". (Apparently this game was at PAX East this spring, but I must have missed it there.) Reminiscent of the classical "ménage problem" in combinatorial mathematics, Girls Like Robots asks you to arrange various people in a space, each according to their particular preferences. For example, you might surmise from the title that the girls like to sit next to the robots.

Girls like robots, but hate nerds. Who do those bitches think built all the robots?

Girls Like Robots seemed like the kind of fun, stylish, tightly-designed puzzle game that is perfect for mobile platforms. It has a light-hearted sensibility that plays well with its eccentric art style, and I'm sure it will be well worth the dollar or two purchase price via iTunes when it releases.

Prime's Quest

Next, I stopped by to visit my friends at the Intrepid booth, to talk to them about their upcoming game Prime's Quest, debuting soon on iOS platforms. Prime's Quest builds on the traditional "sokoban" (warehouse keeper) style of puzzle game, wherein the player has to shift a bunch of blocks or crates around a crowded room to make it to the exit. I've been playing the beta, and so far it's got some great new mechanics that make this classic puzzle style seem fresh. I'm looking forward to playing the finished product.

Rite

One of the great things about the game expo environment is that you get to see products before they are finished. Some of them, like Rite are still in the prototype stages, allowing you a unique opportunity to engage the developer early in the design process. Developed by Father Octopus (which is also the name of the founder's band), Rite is a puzzle-platformer where you guide some sort of futuristic priest through a maze of deadly traps. The primary puzzle element I saw was a "dimension-splitting" mechanic, wherein you divided the player character into two copies of himself, which you had to control simultaneously.

Given that puzzle-platformers have become a somewhat trite and overutilized genre as of late—they're basically like the dubstep of indie games— Rite may have a hard time standing out from the crowd. However, even in its infancy, I could tell the game captured a certain distinctive ambience, one that could really shine with right graphics and audio direction.

Snapshot

Of course, after disparaging the whole genre of puzzle-platformers, the next game I played was Snapshot, a puzzle-platformer by Retro Affect available now on Steam. I first played this game at PAX East this spring and really enjoyed it.

In Snapshot, you play as an adorable robot who uses his camera to capture items from the world, which he can then use to solve puzzles. Captured items maintain physical qualities such as their momentum, giving many of the puzzles a physics-based bent. One nice thing about Snapshot is that unlike most modern indie platformers, the grisly character deaths are kept pretty much to a minimum, meaning that I can play this game with my three-year-old without worrying that he'll be waking me up in the middle of the night because he thinks Meat Boy is trying to kill him.

Candlelight

One of the last games that really grabbed my attention was Candlelight by Idle Action Studios, a game that I'm not going to call a "puzzle-platformer" only because I'm sick of typing those words. In Candlelight, you to control two characters simultaneously with independent controls (e.g. with the WASD and OKL; keys on a keyboard, or eventually with dual joysticks, one would presume). The silhoutte-based graphics divide the environment into light and dark, positive and negative spaces over which the pair of characters can exert certain powers. For example, the one character's lantern might cause hidden platforms to appear, or remove certain obstacles from view allowing the other character to pass.

I'm pretty sure if this were my wife and I, she wouldn't let me wander off with the lantern while she crawled through the spike-and-rock tunnel by herself.

The game still has a long way to go, but the version I played at Boston FIG already had some really smart design choices. For example, when the characters became separated, the view gently separated into a split-screen arrangement, which gradually shifted to corners of the screen as the characters became even farther apart. The effect gave me a subtle sense of where my characters were in the world, and was a much more elegant solution than more traditional approaches such as zooming way out, or plotting my location on some sort of mini-map.

All in all, Boston FIG was a great event. Although I played plenty of other promising games, I hope the handful I talked about give you a sense of just how exciting the indie game scene is here in Boston. Speaking with one of the festival organizers late in the day, he shared that in his estimation, there were about 2-4 times the number of attendees than they expected—about 2,000 or so total. Hopefully the success of the event was such that Boston Festival of Indie Games will continue to be an annual tradition for years to come.

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My Fall Preorder Lineup

I've gradually grown to love "preordering" upcoming titles before they're released. Originally I viewed the practice as a way for desperate Gamestop employees to harass you at the register, by running through all the additional games they'd like you to buy beyond the one you were actually holding. As I started buying most of my games online, I became more willing to drop a bit of pre-release coin in exchange for various discounts and bonuses.

Today, I'm a straight-up preorder addict. I buy upcoming titles on Amazon as soon as I know I want them, without regard to whatever preorder bonuses may or may not materialize. (More than once, I've ordered games so far in advance that they've been delivered to a previous address several months after I moved.) Every release date is like a little mini-Christmas, and the UPS guy is my own personal Santa in brown short-pants. Here's a quick run-down of the titles I'm expecting to show up on my doorstep between now and the end of 2012.

Game: Borderlands 2

Platform: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Release Date: September 18, 2012

How I Feel About It: Cautiously Optimistic

Released in 2009, the original Borderlands received a fair amount of acclaim for its distinctive visual style and its skillful integration of RPG elements into solid first-person shooter gameplay. Also, from what I heard, when experienced at its finest, the four-player co-op bordered on transcendental. Unfortunately, this was never my experience, as the difficulty scaling was so aggressive that to play with anyone a few levels above or below you was either prohibitively challenging or pointlessly easy. Furthermore, the bare-bones plot and repetitive mission structure left me pretty unsatisfied with the single-player experience. Still, there was a whole lot about Borderlands that reeked of promise, and if its sequel can fix some of these missteps while building on the potential of the original, it could turn out to be one of the best games of the year.

Game: XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Platform: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Release Date: October 9, 2012

How I Feel About It: Sporting a Raging Nostalgia Hard-On

If you've ever spent any time talking to a PC gamer, chances are they've mentioned XCOM at some point. Originally released in 1994, XCOM was a turn-based tactical strategy game that revolutionized the genre, while simultaneously keeping my friends and I up playing into the wee hours, terrified that at any moment a Cryssalid would burst out of the monitor of my Tandy desktop and impregnate us with its zombifying alien toxins. This upcoming remake of the original has been lovingly developed by the capable hands at Sid Meier's Firaxis Games, the folks behind the Civilization series. All signs point to this game being a slam dunk, and for the developers' sake I sure hope so... should it disappoint, an army of XCOM fanboys stand at the ready to unleash a flood of impotent Internet rage.

Game: Dishonored

Platform: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC

Release Date: October 9, 2012

How I Feel About It: Skeptical, But Intrigued

Dishonored is a first-person stealth/action-adventure game developed by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Softworks. I hadn't heard about this game at all until this year's E3, and I'm still a bit skeptical. If there's two things that first-person games tend not to excel at, it's stealth and melee combat. (Fans of the Thief games would probably disagree with me here.) Still, the impressive screenshots and industrial-era setting—along with the fact that it's one of the few new games this year that's not a sequel—piqued my interest enough to go with Dishonored as my impulse buy for the fall.

Game: Assassin's Creed III

Platform: Xbox 360 / PS3 / PC / Wii U

Release Date: October 20, 2012

How I Feel About It: Brimming With Revolutionary Bloodlust

Being a New Englander, any game where you run around revolutionary-era Boston murdering Redcoats is going to get four out of five stars from me just for showing up. Sure, the Assassin's Creed series started to get a little stale after Ubisoft released a second follow-up to Assassin's Creed II, but it's still a rock-solid franchise, and everything I've been hearing about this game indicates that the developers have taken nothing for granted. For now, I'm going to allow myself to revel in unchecked enthusiasm for this game, fully confident that it's going to turn out to be phenomenal.

Game: Halo 4

Platform: Xbox 360

Release Date: November 6, 2012

How I Feel About It: Glad It's Not Call of Duty

I never thought of myself as a huge Halo fan, usually preferring to scratch any competitive multiplayer itches with the Gears of War games. However, my friends and I have recently gone back to playing Halo 3 during our weekly online play-date, and I was quickly reminded of what an amazing game it is. As someone who is thoroughly bored of the whole Call of Duty thing, I'm picking Halo 4 over Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 as my preferred multiplayer shooter for the holiday season. (If my friends are reading this... you now know what to tell your wives you want for Christmas.)

As you can see, I've got my work cut out for me for the rest of 2012. (I'm actually glad Bioshock Infinite got pushed off to February.) Looking at this lineup, it makes me wonder what kind of space is left in the marketplace for the Wii U, which Nintendo just announced will be available November 18. Regardless, there will probably be no U for me... my dance card is full.

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August Game Roundup

After a July full of PC gaming, I returned last month to the comfortable embrace of my Xbox and Nintendo 3DS. Let's look at some of the titles I checked out during August.

Dark Souls (Xbox 360)

With no new titles immediately demanding my attention, I began last month's gaming by returning to an older title, one that I lovingly refer to as "my Waterloo". As I imagine is true for a lot of folks who've played it, Dark Souls is a perpetually ongoing and highly ambitious undertaking, like that novel you've been writing on since college or that growth you keep meaning to ask a doctor about. However, despite receiving pretty much universal critical acclaim and garnering a zealously devoted fan base, I'm still surprised how many casual gamers haven't yet heard of Dark Souls.

Yeah, you're going to see this screen a lot.

If you're not familiar with the game, I'll try to describe briefly what makes it such a big deal. At first glance, Dark Souls appears to be a drably gothic third-person action RPG with a middling combat system and an uninspiring plot. Once you start playing it, though, you quickly realize its appeal: it's brutally difficult, but in a rigorously fair-handed way. In each new area, you will die repeatedly at first, and it will probably depress you. However, by gaining equipment and levels, by learning your way around the environment and its many fiendish traps, and by becoming attuned to the patterns and weaknesses of your adversaries, eventually you will progress (albeit to the next crushingly difficult area of the game). It's the kind of difficult that is much less characterized by controller-throwing frustration, and much more about terrified, crippling paranoia interspersed with occasional bouts of cautious jubilation.

One of the most engaging aspects of the game (other than its innovative twist on multiplayer, which I won't get into here) is the checkpoint system. Whenever you die, you are revived at the last "bonfire" you camped at, but without all of your souls (which serve as both experience points and currency) and humanity (another important commodity in the game). Moreover, resting at a bonfire refills your health, spells, and stock of healing potions, but also revives any non-boss enemies you have slain in the area. This system works in concert with the game's merciless difficulty to present some difficult choices to the player. If I'm forging a path through an unknown new dungeon, but I'm running low on health and have accumulated a hefty cache of souls, should I try to make my way back to a previous bonfire, or try to tough it out to the next one... knowing that if I fail, all my efforts will have been for nothing? (For an added dose of sweaty-palmed intensity, note that it is possible to reclaim your lost souls and humanity after you die, but only if you make it back to the location of your demise without dying again.)

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (Nintendo 3DS)

I recall playing the original Kingdom Hearts on the Playstation 2 as being quite a magical experience. Thrust into a bizarre world where Disney cartoons, Final Fantasy characters, and Haley Joel Osment somehow coexisted, I raced through the game in about a week, desperately anxious to find what treasured memories from my youth I would uncover in each new world. And even though Kingdom Hearts was covered in a layer of nostalgia so thick that it bordered on exploitation, underneath was a solid action-RPG with a rich story, engaging environments, and genuinely fun gameplay.

Nearly 10 years and several confusingly named sequels later (most of which I didn't play), I decided it was time to revisit this idiosyncratic franchise with Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for the Nintendo 3DS. Unfortunately, while this newest Kingdom Hearts has a mountain of new and complex battle systems big enough to get an A for effort, it manages to capture very little of the magic of the original. The worlds and characters are limited primarily to Disney's more obscure and/or disregarded properties, and the Final Fantasy influence is practically nonexistent. After about 20 hours I have yet to beat it, but at this point I'm almost ready to put it to bed anyway and pick up Tales of the Abyss for the 3DS instead.

10000000 (iOS)

Finally, a compelling reason to match three arbitrary pictures of things

Ever since I bought a Nintendo 3DS, I've largely ignored my iPhone as a game platform, except during particularly boring technical seminars or at unusually long traffic stops. However, after hearing about 10000000 (i.e. "ten million") on the Gamers With Jobs podcast last month (which featured a great interview with the creator), I decided to give the game a shot. After about five minutes I was hooked, to the extent that for a few bizarre days last month, my iPhone was my go-to gaming platform.

10000000 is a typical match-three game (like Columns or Bejeweled), except that matching items affects the progression of your avatar as he crawls through a linear dungeon at the top of the screen. For example, matching swords performs a melee attack, matching shields bolsters your defense, and matching keys opens locks on chests and doors. During each run you collect gold, experience, and resources, which can later be used to upgrade your character in various ways. The uninspired name "10000000"—and wow, it really is an awful, awful name—refers to the high score you must reach in a single run to beat the game.

10000000 is rendered in a pixel art style accompanied by chiptune audio tracks, and its tutorials and menu interfaces suggest a lack of polish that one might expect from a homebrewed title like this. However, don't let these rough edges fool you; the gameplay itself is actually quite refined. The sliding controls are smooth and responsive, and the block animations, combo notifications, and sound effects are fluid and well-timed. Take it from someone who isn't a die-hard puzzle game fan: 10000000 is well worth $1.99 and 6-8 hours of your time.

Darksiders II (Xbox 360)

Most of what I needed to say about this game I said in my recent review. However, looking back over what I wrote, I realize that I may have understated how disappointed I was with this game. For me, the first Darksiders was one of those rare games I really fell in love with, the kind of game that you start over again from the beginning the moment you beat it, or that you lend to your friends so that you can talk to them about how awesome you think it is. Darksiders II isn't a bad game by any metric, but it certainly hasn't inspired me the way its predecessor did, causing me to proselytize to my friends until they started blocking my phone calls. If the franchise continues, I'll be interested to see if Darksiders really was lightning in a bottle, or if somehow Vigil Games manages to recapture the magic of the original.

Dust: An Elysian Tail (Xbox LIVE Arcade)

After putting Darksiders II to rest in peace (see what I did there?), I moved on to my other most-anticipated game of the summer: Dust: An Elysian Tail. I first heard about Dust at PAX East this spring, when I got a chance to speak with the game's developer, Dean Dodrill. (Note the singular noun "developer", as in one single dude.)

With its beautifully animated graphics, rich environments, and engaging gameplay, Dust turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. Even its characters were well-acted and charming enough for me to look past their excessively cutesy appearance an occasionally cloying dialogue. I'll save the rest of my analysis for my review, but for now you can know that Dust gets my seal of approval.

So that about wraps up my recent gaming experiences, as well as another New England summer. Soon it will be time for fall jackets, changing leaves, pumpkin-spice lattes, and most excitingly, Borderlands 2.

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July Game Roundup

Summer is one of the toughest times in the childhood of a video gamer. Even back when I was in elementary school, I remember lamenting the cutting irony of the fact that summer vacation arrived (a) well after I had thoroughly exhausted all interest in whatever game I'd gotten for Christmas, (b) well before my autumn birthday (at which time I would inevitably recieve gifts of clothes and school supplies anyway), and (c) at a time of year when hardly any new games were released. In the end, I suppose all these barriers to gaming were likely of little real consequence; even if I'd had a stack of unplayed cartridges at my disposal, my fascist parental overlords probably still would have forced me to play outside.

As an adult, I find summers to be much more palatable. Sure, I don't get two months of contiguous vacation, but instead I have disposable income, free will, and air conditioning. And even though there aren't many triple-A game releases this time of year, there's a nearly endless supply of cheap downloadable fun to be consumed via Steam's Summer Sale (which just ended) and Xbox LIVE's "Summer of Arcade". Here's what I've been playing...

Diablo III

Released this May following a 12-year hiatus in the franchise, Diablo III has been the preeminent time-sink for something like 10 million people this summer. Despite its success on paper, the game itself has traveled kind of a bumpy road, one rife with server issues, bizarre gameplay limits, and game hacks and exploits. In a typical video game, these issues would be less of a problem; however, Diablo III incorporates a "Real Money Auction House", which (for those of you who don't know) is a virtual marketplace that allows players to buy and sell in-game equipment and commodities using real-world currency. Apparently, the lesson to learn here is that if you create a virtual economy that is already incredibly unstable because of its implicitly artificial nature, piling a bunch of additional problems on top of it yields results that are somewhat of a total clusterfuck.

Is there someone out there willing to drop $200 on a "Focused Beating"? Only time will tell.

Being one of those crazy people who doesn't play games so I can farm loot to sell on the Internet, I tended to approach Diablo III as... well, a "game". While Diablo III is undoubtedly highly-tuned, expertly polished, and addictive as hell, even after my first 30 hours of gameplay I'm still not sure if it's actually "fun". It's entirely possible Blizzard has simply figured out an algorithm for directly triggering the pleasure centers in my brain via randomized loot drops.

Resonance

Eventually I took a break from Diablo III and returned to my traditional summer practice of snapping up old titles and indie games in bulk off of Steam. One of my first purchases was Resonance, an indie point-n-click adventure game in the old-school pixel art style.

Compared to staring at Battle.net error codes, I much preferred Resonance as a way to pass the time. Although the puzzles aren't terribly mind-blowing and the voice acting has the kind of stilted, canned quality that is hard to avoid in adventure games, Resonance is still well-executed in many ways. Not only does it build on the traditional adventure-game formula with a few interesting gameplay innovations, but its plot and character development were more than enough to make Resonance worth a few hours of my time.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

I really enjoy the webcomic/blog/Internet institution Penny Arcade. I think one of the reasons I like Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik's commentary so much is that it spans the full dynamic range of the human experience from the existential to the profane, in much the same effortless manner of comedians like Jon Stewart or Louis C.K.

It's because I enjoy the eccentricities of the Penny Arcade world view so thoroughly that I've continued to play their "Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness" series, despite the fact each installment thus far has been decidedly middling. Granted, this newest offering is a departure from the two previous Hothead-produced titles, rendered instead in the style of a 16-bit console RPG by the qualified retro enthusiasts at Zeboyd Games. However, the end result is still a mediocre role-playing game that could (and should) be ignored by anyone who isn't a Penny Arcade fan.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

As I've mentioned before, seeing the Assassin's Creed III gameplay trailer at PAX earlier this year really got me getting back on the AC bandwagon. After playing Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, I decided to ride the sequel train right on through Assassin's Creed: Revelations, the third part of the "Ezio Trilogy". This (hopefully) final chapter follows Ezio's exploits in 16th-century Constantinople, where despite being well into his fifties, he somehow manages to keep free solo climbing, base jumping, and serial murdering as though he was still a teenage assassin.

Apparently three decades of jumping off rooftops and stabbing dudes in the face really ages a guy.

Unless you are deeply fascinated by the lore of the Assassin's Creed universe, AC: Revelations is a sequel that could easily be skipped. While it is certainly as expertly crafted as other entries in the series, its more-of-the-same gameplay and its insistence on extending the already overdrawn Ezio plot line offers more exploitation than revelation.

Double Fine Happy Action Theater

Recently my kids and I had a playdate with a friend of mine and his two children. After a three-hour maelstrom of toys, tears, and bathroom mishaps, we were starting to run out of hope, as well as beer. Enter Double Fine Happy Action Theater, an Xbox LIVE downloadable arcade game for the Kinect that also seemed to be a safe and legal toddler narcotic. Although it's little more than a tech demo of 20 or so minigames, Happy Action Theater includes some of the most innovative uses of the Kinect sensor I've seen thus far, and each is delivered with trademark Double Fine flair. If you have young children I highly recommend it... at $10, it's one of the cheapest and most effortless ways you'll find for wearing out your offspring.

Terraria

The first time anyone hears about Terraria, it's always the same description: "It's 2-D Minecraft." To be fair, it's an accurate description; Terraria not only borrows Minecraft's core gameplay concepts (i.e. "mining" and "crafting"), it also borrows almost everything else. However, it's a testament to how genuinely well designed and innovative Terraria is that it can plagiarize so heavily while ultimately delivering an experience that is quite different from that of Minecraft. While life in Minecraft is an exercise in solitary exploration that occasionally borders on survival horror, Terraria is like Legend of Zelda would be if after conquering a dungeon you could lug it up to the surface and use pieces of it to build yourself a kick-ass fortress.

Now if only I would put this much effort into my real house.

My only gripe about Terraria is that the difficulty curve is steep. Even with heavy coaching from online walkthroughs and FAQs, after 20 hours I still couldn't beat the first boss. In the end, I decided just to be happy with the fact that I had built another sweet residence to my long list of virtual properties.

Well, that pretty much wraps up July's gaming exploits. God and Amazon Prime willing, this time next month I should be writing about one of my most-anticipated games of 2012: Darksiders II.

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Aftermath

Originally this post was going to be about something else—perhaps a discussion of the screen in video games as a boundary object in the realm of imagination, or some other equally urgent topic. However, as I'm sure was the case for a lot of people, the horrific events that occurred in Colorado on Friday got me thinking about other, more somber things.

First of all, whenever a tragedy like this happens, I'm always struck by how completely it dominates the media. During the days and weeks afterward, torrents of analysis wash over us as talking heads rehash every moment of the event in excruciating detail. As each incremental bit of new information is uncovered, the reporters and pundits absorb it immediately into their continuously-streaming narrative of the tragedy, doing so with a zealotry that can't help but come across as macabre. (Don't worry, the irony of me contributing to the avalanche of press by complaining about it is not lost on me.)

A generous person might say that the media frenzy isn't about ratings and morbid curiosity, but rather that it's about getting people the information they need to process this tragedy and perhaps find some closure. I understand that a lot of people need someone or something to blame, because answers like "there are insane and dangerous people in the world" and "shitty things just happen sometimes" don't really cut it. However, the problem I have with this approach is that everything I see or hear or read about an event like this makes the whole thing seem more surreal and detached from the human experience, not less. I'm not sure if this is true for the family, friends, and community of the victims, or if they're to busy grieving to watch Fox News. Regardless, I can't imagine that all of this coverage really helps them or anyone else all that much.

Perhaps part of the problem is that like most of the people I know—and like most of the people talking at me from the television—there is very little in my life experience that allows me to understand this kind of reality in any tangible way. I don't know anyone who has ever been murdered, or anyone who has murdered someone else. I've never killed anyone myself, at least not that I know about. I've never fought in a war or engaged in mortal combat with another person. In fact, I've been in very few life-or-death situations of any sort, and most of these were pretty firmly under my control. Pretty much every experience I could potentially use to begin to comprehend something like this has been absorbed through a screen in the form of television, movies, and video games, and nearly all of it has been fiction.

Of course, I'm not complaining about this state of affairs; ultimately it's a good thing that I don't have a more intuitive understanding of how to cope with the fallout from a mass murder. However, a barrage of media analysis coming from people who probably don't have much more perspective on these matters than I do doesn't provide much insight either.

Eventually, once the dust settles a bit, people will really start to dig for the "cause" of this tragedy. Discussions will ensue regarding family values, mental illness, gun control, the perils of life in a free society, and a host of other issues. Video games and other violent media will enter the conversation, as they always do. Perhaps some reactionary legislation will be passed regarding sequels for movie franchises based on comic books—stranger things certainly have happened.

People will continue to talk about this terrible event for years to come, while still thinking about the ones like it that happened in the past, and dreading the next one like it which will inevitably happen at some point in the future. My point is that whether we're the man on the street, a television personality, or just some jackass posting his ramblings on the Internet, those of us who have so little perspective on these matters would do well to remember that.

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