They released a trailer this week for The Bureau: X-Com Declassified, a game that’s been teased for so long that most have assumed it became last year’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown, which was in fact a completely separate game developed during the interim.  The trailer features a kid on a bicycle, a man walking through a top secret government ops center, retro music stylings, and a shot at some alien technology at the very end.  The trailer is a well shot enterprise, delivering a few minutes of suspense and tension and nostalgia shot through with paranoia, but there’s one thing that you won’t find in it.

The game.

This has become more commonplace in the world of video games over the past few years.  Publishers have spent lavish sums on over the top mini-movies to sell their games instead of actually showing the game, and sometimes this process has produced exciting short films, and sometimes it’s been a waste of money in every regard.  What I can’t fathom is why it’s done so often.  Making movies isn’t as expensive as developing games, but surely after three years in development a team would have enough gameplay footage to edit together an intriguing tease.  It’s certainly not done out of secrecy, because game developers are known for broadcasting their intentions to anyone who will listen for years in advance of release, in magazines, at conventions, and even just to people one on one (I’m looking at you, Randy Pitchford.  We need to have words).  I suppose the reason to do so is to sell the feeling of playing the game, something that’s not easily felt by watching others play, and this is probably the closest answer to the truth… but it doesn’t explain why so many of these short films feel nothing like the finished product.  The Halo ads have always been dramatic and haunting, and are probably the best of these movie-ads by a long stretch, but they feel nothing like crashing onto the sofa and stuffing yourself full of junk food between respawns while nine-year-olds spawn camp you from areas on the map that are supposed to be inaccessible.

So, The Bureau.  A game that was originally just referred to as X-Com, long since thought to have gone dark, now apparently coming out this August.  X-Com fans don’t number as prominently as Call of Duty fans, but they are nothing if not devoted.  They’ve even dissected this tease frame by frame for analysis in hopes of cracking its secrets, searching for easter eggs.

In last week’s Mad Men, two competing firms are asked by Chevrolet to pitch a car that they haven’t even seen.  The firms seem to be sacrificing everything for a shot at an unknown entity that they assume will be fantastic because of who’s making it.  They both agree to launch a campaign that doubles down on the mystery of the car by refusing to show it.  The car is the XP-887, which was later revealed to be the Chevy Vega, a notorious lemon for the company.  I don’t worry too much about the fictional advertising firms prospects, however.  They’ll have one hell of a future selling video games by showing everything but the game itself.


When I was younger, I loved nothing more in the world than a bacon double cheeseburger from Burger King.  It had to be plain, just bacon and meat and cheese.  I ate that burger at least four or five times a week from when I was seven years old to when I was still in high school, and then one day… I never wanted to eat one again.  And I haven’t.

That’s how I feel about shooting zombies right now.

Zombies, more than any other enemy in the history of video games, seem perfect for the medium.  They want nothing but to kill you, they present different challenges depending on their numbers, and they can be a metaphor for pretty much anything.  I’ve seen zombies used to decry everything from mindless consumerism to fascist ideology to the difficulties of sustaining an aesthetically pleasing garden.  Zombies can be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned or burnt.  They can be mowed down by anything from an M1 Abrams to a…well, lawnmower.  The best thing about zombies, however, is that they’re already dead, so you don’t feel bad when you kill them.

The problem is that after a while, you don’t feel anything.

The first Dead Island was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was already beginning to feel stale when it came onto the scene in 2011.  It announced that it would be something different by a Memento style trailer that detailed the last grisly hours of a family on vacation, and the movie rights were scooped up on the strength of that trailer alone.  When the game came out, none of the emotional nuance of those three minutes made it into the game, but it still had something up its sleeve that made Dead Island stand out from the horde of other undead titles already on the market: the Royal Palms resorts on the island of Banoi.

The Royal Palms Resort was the real reason for the success of the first Dead Island.  A picturesque island resort overrun by the undead is a good idea on its own, but what really made the opening of Dead Island stand apart was how real the resort felt. Bars and swimming pools and palm trees were all laid out as you’d expect, but so were parking lots, lifeguard stations and bathrooms. I wandered around that opening level for hours not because I was hunting for a rotting skull to bury my machete in, but because it was such a nice place to explore. It was like having the run of the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, with no velvet ropes and no time share meeting you couldn’t get out of attending. Most importantly, the first Dead Island offered me a twist on survival horror by giving me a new place to be horrified (and in beautiful weather, no less).

I tried playing Dead Island: Riptide this week, hoping that it would recapture the thrill of one of my favorite zombie games from the current console generation, and immediately I felt disappointed. The gameplay was essentially unchanged, the main characters were all back, but the spark was gone. I shot some zombies, I stabbed some zombies, I ran some over with my car…and I felt nothing. What I think was missing was a sense of connection to where I was, which was an anonymous fishing village populated by people who clearly wanted to survive, but didn’t want to do any of the work themselves that would ensure that survival.  To make things worse, the zombies you had just killed would respawn in the same place the minute you turned your back on them, giving the entire game a feeling of Sisyphean emptiness.  Where the first game was a tasty Big Kahuna Burger, cooked to perfection with all the right toppings, this new offering was something you sunk your teeth into joylessly, because you’ve been conditioned to do so by what’s come before.

When a zombie game is working, the visceral feel of it is transporting. You’re not who you really are, you’re who you just know you would be if circumstances ever pushed you far enough.  That’s not the feeling I get from Dead Island: Riptide.  Instead, I feel myself sitting on the couch, numbingly mashing buttons, accomplishing nothing, feeling nothing. It makes me feel like a zombie.

Stick with me here for a moment as this post isn’t about a video game, it’s about being human.  I downloaded a game today from the Playstation Store called Papo & Yo.  I didn’t know anything about it except that I saw a trailer for it about a year ago and something in it had grabbed my attention.

Now I’ve played plenty of buddy games in my time, from Jak and Daxter to Ratchet and Clank.  I spent hours upon hours with Link and Midna, Wander and Agro.  I love the interactions, the snappy banter and the attachment that grows for your companion. But when Papo & Yo gave me control, the first thing I noticed was that I was all alone.  No pals around, just a small boy in a school uniform, somewhere deep within a Brazilian favela—a ghetto.

The only goal seemed to be to catch up to a young girl as the favela sprang to a magical life around her. Derelict houses got up and walked on four legs as I explored.  The old-fashioned keys of clockwork toys sprouted from the dingy walls, each composed entirely of glowing chalk lines.  It was beautiful.  Progression came quickly and I finally found my buddy, a tiny robot that clung to the boy’s back and acted as a little jet pack.  His name turned out to be Lula, not Papo or Yo.  In fact the boy’s was revealed to be Quico but I was having too much fun to consider who this Papo & Yo might actually be.

Together at last, we ran upon a creature.  A slumbering giant with horns sprouting from its head, we comically hopped on its massive belly for some extra spring needed to reach a high spot.  It woke and followed us and soon we discovered it loved coconuts.  Of course, we gathered them for it to eat.  We were bonding, building trust.  We used the coconuts as lures to get him to weigh down trigger plates and bowl over walls.  Harmless and helpful, I quickly found myself attached to him.

As some brightly colored frogs leapt out of a pipe, the monster playfully chased them, forgetting the coconuts entirely. I found this absolutely endearing.

Until he caught one.

First, he ate it.  That didn’t feel right.  It seemed out of character for this gentle titan but before I could afford any time to consider why he did it, the beast transformed.  Bursting into flame and clearly enraged, it charged, grabbing the little boy in its powerful grip and viciously hurling him.  Hitting the ground, I regained control and ran but the monster was too fast and too big and too strong.  I was overtaken and thrown again, but this time the boy let loose a scream, the horrible, helpless scream of a small child.

At that moment, my stomach tightened as I painfully realized that I was acting out a metaphor.  I was playing a part in the designer’s allegory. Papo & Yo wasn’t some buddy adventure.  Papo & Yo was Papa y Yo.

Daddy and I.

I was finally able to escape the monster’s rage and find a cool, blue glob of something that calmed him back down. But our relationship wasn’t a friendship anymore. It was the uneasy alliance of a young boy needing vital assistance from a ticking time bomb with only a toy robot to protect him. Together they ventured out to locate a shaman who could cure the beast’s rage—the kind of magical solution only a child believes must exist.

High art is a bitter fruit. You must suffer to create it, and understand suffering to appreciate it.  What is it about pain that opens the door to human understanding?  Playing Papo & Yo, I feel like I experienced the intense betrayal a little boy must feel when his own father starts to beat him.  To tell a tale like this, you have to hurt.  You have to feel a pain that’s beyond anything most of us will ever understand.  I’m so thankful for my time with this game today, but fuck this guy’s dad for being the inspiration to make it.

Brett Haile is a writer and graphic artist living in Austin, Texas.

So there’s this game, and it’s not out yet, but it’s received some notoriety online because it’s a game you can help fund through kickstarter, and the protagonist is a toddler, and the toddler apparently can die in the game.

Still here?  Good.  A lot of people can’t even entertain the idea of a toddler dying in any way, much less in a game (a word that many can’t separate from the word “fun”), because why would you want to?  So I wouldn’t blame them from surfing on to the next picture of cats up to shenanigans, and I’ll be joining them as soon as we’re done having this conversation, but I’m glad you’re still here because if you care about this medium as much as I do, then it’s a conversation we need to have.

We want new things.  We want new ideas, we want new experiences, we want to say “I’ve never seen someone try that before.”  We want to reward the innovators, the pioneers, the first to sing “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah.”  Every day, people try to satisfy us with the same things, over and over, and eventually when we hear “She loves you,” we think “Yeah yeah yeah…”

Every Tuesday I think, “Yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a space marine, yeah yeah yeah.”  “Ooh, I’m a gangster, yeah yeah yeah.”   “Ooh, I’m one of the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse, everything’s been turned upside down and I’ve got to do whatever it takes to survive, yeah yeah yeah.

So why do we fall into the same old patterns over and over again?  Why do we accept the same predetermined roles that this medium gives us over and over again?  Don’t we want to be more than just a space marine?

We want power.  All of us, every single one of us, want power.  We say we want more money, but we really want the power to buy things.  We say we want more time, but we really want the power to do what we want with the time we already have.  We say we want to be strong, but what we really want is not to be weak.  Games have grown up over the past thirty years by giving us power, more and more of it, consistently and without hesitation.  What’s the first memory you have of a game really resonating with you?  For a lot of us, it’s probably standing alone under a clear blue sky, stomping on the first thing you see and killing it, and then eating something that made you twice your size.

So the guys over at Krillbite Studios decided to offer you something different, to let you be something less powerful than a space marine.  Less powerful than anything, really.  A toddler has no power at all.  A toddler has wants and needs like the rest of us, but not the ability to satisfy those wants and needs without help.  Actually, that’s not entirely true; a toddler does not believe that it can satisfy its wants and needs without help.  That’s why toddlers cling so tightly to their parents.  To a toddler, parents are the world.  They’re safety, they’re security, they’re survival.  That’s why it’s such an inspired choice as a protagonist for survival horror:  it’s a universal set of goals and fears that we’ve all experienced, one where the idea of failure (not finding your mommy) feels like the end of the world.

We grow out of this stage of helplessness, thankfully, but we never truly forget it.  That lizard brain in the back of your head, the one that seems to come alive in poorly lit neighborhoods late at night when you’re not sure what’s around the corner, that lizard brain never forgets what it’s like to be that young, to be that scared, to be that powerless.  And that’s why some people reject the ideas behind Among the Sleep outright, and say it’s too controversial, it’s in poor taste, that it shouldn’t be done.

Because people don’t like to feel powerless.

We’ve seen plenty of games where the idea was to evade combat rather than engage in it, but even in those games we usually play as a ninja, or an assassin, or Batman.  I can’t think of many occasions (or any) where we’ve played as someone with no combat experience whatsoever (unless you count Sherry Birkin’s level in Resident Evil 2, but that was more of a side note to an existing game, where everyone else was decked out with guns and knives).  We’ve played hundreds of games set in WWII, but never from the Jewish point of view, trying to avoid capture or detection.  We’ve played hundreds of games set in the middle east, but never from the point of view of a kid trying to make it home without being shot up or bombed in the street.

We’ve seen stories of the powerless told before, and told powerfully.  From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Diary of Anne Frank to pretty much everything I’ve ever read by John Steinbeck, powerless protagonists have provided us some of our richest glimpses into the universal pain and glory of being a human being.  Why can’t gaming do the same thing?  Why shouldn’t it try?  Why should we judge Among the Sleep by how it plays when we fail, and not by the exhilaration we’ll feel when we succeed?  What may seem like a baby crawling through the dark to its mommy, might be the first act of courage in a long heroic life, rarely glimpsed by us or even remembered by the hero, but no less important.

After all, do you think space marines just fall out of the sky?

This is a gameplay video for a game called Among The Sleep, which is currently looking for funding via Kickstarter.

You can find out more about Among the Sleep here.

Oh, you didn’t click yet? Well then let me add:

Survival horror as seen through the eyes of a toddler.

Sweet dreams.

Fighting games are pianos.  Wait, I’ll back up.

Fighting games don’t have a lot on their minds. Punch, kick, throw, etc.  The point of them isn’t to learn anything about yourself, and they’re not there to comment on world events.  When they do have a narrative, it usually involves two officers of the law going undercover to bring down a global threat by punching people to death in a secret underworld fighting competition.  This is not, to my knowledge, how law enforcement operates in the real world, but in this particular genre you learn not to ask for too much.

You ask for the tools to hurt your opponent, and the game gives them to you.  Everything else the game gives you is an afterthought.

So yeah, pianos.

I can play a C-scale, and I think I remember Chopsticks.  I remember the first part of Chopsticks.  Nobody has ever asked me to prove this because nobody wants to hear Chopsticks, ever.  My skills with Mortal Kombat are equal to my skills as a pianist, and therefore I have tended to look at Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken and their ilk the way I look at pianos.  I’m sure they’re wonderful in the right hands, but those hands are not mine.  Consequently I’ve never given any thought to how well made many fighting games actually are.  To see how good Injustice: Gods Among Us would be, I needed a pianist.

My friend Jonathan Kerns is not an actual pianist, but hand him six buttons and a d-pad and he will compose percussive melodies of bone against bone.  I put the controller in his hands instead of mine to see what music he could make out of Bruce Wayne’s spine, and suddenly I was hearing Chopin instead of Chopsticks.

Once the problem of gameplay (more specifically, my inability to master it) was out of the way, I was able to focus on the storyline.  I didn’t expect this to yield much of interest, given the genre, but I was wrong.  Injustice is easily the most story driven fighting game that I’ve ever encountered, telling the story of dozens of heroes and villains from the DC Universe teaming up against Superman to save the world.  Yes, you read that correctly.

A quick synopsis: the Joker is going to detonate a nuclear bomb in Metropolis as several DC heroes race to save the day.  Just as they are about to stop him, they are transported to an alternate Metropolis in the near future where the bomb already went off, killing millions, including Lois Lane.  The Superman from this timeline has not taken these events well.  Instead of doing the right thing and handing the Joker to authorities, Superman institutes a global police state where any perceived threat is rounded up and executed.  The most threatening of these is, of course, Batman.  Except now there’s two Batmen, one from the original timeline, and one from this new one.  There’s also two of the Flash, two Wonder Women, two Green Lanterns (although the alternate timeline’s Hal Jordan has become a Yellow Lantern for Sinistro), and so on.  This (never rationalized) leap into quantum theory is really just an excuse to have heroes fight versions of themselves (what’s known as a “mirror match”) and perhaps most surprisingly, it recasts the Joker and Harley Quinn as guerrilla revolutionaries hoping to bring Superman’s totalitarian regime crashing to the ground.

Superman has had a rough history in video games, coming across as stiff and boring at best, and downright unplayable at worst.  The notorious Superman 64 is considered by many to be the single worst game ever created, and not just because the controls handled like a hippo in a wheelchair.  Superman’s primary obstacle to being an interesting protagonist is that he doesn’t have any weaknesses (except of course Kryptonite, which is almost always used as a diabolus ex machina whenever a writer has to delay Superman for any period of time).  He can fly, he’s bulletproof, he can hold his breath forever… it’s not so much the things that he can do that make him boring, it’s that nothing can be done to him.

All of these things that make Superman such a boring protagonist actually make the Man of Steel an interesting antagonist.  No one hero’s abilities are any match for him, so they all have to work together to have any hope of stopping him.  What could be particularly interesting about his turn as a heel is that Superman never feels like he’s in the wrong.  The loss of his family pushes him over the edge, but he doesn’t abandon the earth to chaos and self-destruction; if anything, Superman throws himself more into his job as global protector, only without realizing (or perhaps willfully ignoring) that he’s taken away humanity’s liberty in exchange for their security.

I say these things could be interesting, but only if the game focused on them effectively.  Instead, one of the few missteps Injustice makes is taking the whole notion of liberty vs. security (and all of the libertarian baggage that such a plot line invites) and uses it as a line in the sand, as if it’s an all or nothing proposition and that the only way to be free is absolute lawlessness, and the only way to be safe is to be locked away.  If you disagree with the idea of a despotic uber-mensch with heat vision imposing his will on all of humanity (and even using that heat vision to quell dissent within his own ranks), then your other option is the Joker and his merry brand of improvised explosive diplomacy.

Where the game missteps in subtext, it makes up in pacing.  Injustice moves with a momentum not seen in any superhero film or tv show, and the fights seem to be over just at the point they would leave you wanting more.  In an inversion of Fight Club’s seventh rule (“Fights will go on for as long as they have to”), the action lasts only long enough for it to be interesting and to move the story along.  Gone is the “best out of three” structure that replaces all of the momentum of an action movie with the frustration of finally accomplishing an impossible task, and then finding out you have to do it again.

So no, Injustice isn’t perfect, but it is trying to be more than just punch, kick, and throw.  It’s ridiculous, but entertaining and exquisitely crafted ridiculousness at the very least, and well worth playing for yourself.  Taking the story too seriously would be a mistake, but it seems the creators were aware of that, and didn’t take the story too seriously themselves.  To really see what the creators of Mortal Kombat have built for you, however, you’re either going to need to find a pianist, or learn to play a few songs yourself.

My name is Joseph McDonald.  I am not a critic.  I am not a game developer.  I am not even a writer.

I am someone who plays a lot of video games.  A lot of them.  When I’m not playing them, I’m usually talking about them, and when I have no one to talk about them with (which is not often, but more often than I would like), I go online to find out what others have to say about them.

Usually what people have to say about video games on the internet boils down to whether or not they should buy a certain game.  Are the graphics good? Are the controls to my liking? Is this too much like something I’ve played before?

Basically, consumer reporting.  And that’s fine.  Sometimes it’s good to have information before you buy.  But that’s not what interests me.

I want to read differing opinions about what a game means.  How does it make you feel?  How does it inspire you?  How is the person who beat that game, different from the person who first picked up that controller?

A great man once argued that video games can not be considered art.  I am not entirely sure he was wrong, but I want someone to try to prove that he was.  And since there’s not a lot of voices out there trying, I figured I might as well give it a shot.  And when I mentioned this to my friends, they said they wanted in.

So, McDonald and Blank.

McDonald is me, but McDonald and Blank is not me. McDonald and Blank is us.  People you know, people you don’t know.  People you don’t know yet.  And maybe even you, yourself.

Every week, or as close to it as I can manage, we will have a different voice discussing different games in different ways.  Some of them I’ll agree with, but I sure hope I don’t agree with all of them.  And some weeks you might agree with me, but I sure hope you don’t always agree with me.  And if you don’t agree with me, write in, tell me why.

Fill in the blank.