DIGC310 Blogpost 4: Anything but a Fail

So these are my thoughts on which grade I would like to achieve in this class and how I plan to get there. It’s a bit full of my scattered thoughts and insecurities, so bear with me.

For week 6 I would LOVE to present my Beta Game Design along with the other students. I feel a little intimidated by the idea just because SO MANY of the game designs seem really awesome, while I feel like I’ve fallen behind and am destined to be a bit forever alone in the project. But in actuality I know that I have designs sitting in the back of my head that I’ve wanted to work on for an age, and that if I just throw the idea out onto the table there are no doubt people who’d be happy to work with me (if it got voted in I suppose). I’ve never used Prezi before being an English/Theatre student who regularly feels personally attacked by technology, so that could be an adventure. I don’t really mean to ‘lone wolf’ this assessment, but it’s looking like it’ll turn out that way to a degree purely because, while other people were getting stuck into modelling, I was still faffing about trying to get Let’s Plays done with the Media crew (which of course have been worthwhile in their own ways, just not for me presenting a game design in a few weeks).

When it comes to the final group presentation I anticipate that my major contributions will be mostly surface level with lots of little additional work added into the mix. With such large groups to work with and so much and such varied talents, it seems like my skills helpful to the group will lean towards the presentation itself. I can see my work being mostly spread across the Media and Modeller groups. For media I can offer highly developed skills in regards to video filming and editing, and have plenty of experience in reaching an audience via social media, as well as being practiced at organisation of information (and people in need be) and giving engaging presentations. As a theatre student I also have a lot of practice when it comes to working with lots of people throughout stressful periods, which might come in handy towards the end of session. As for modelling, my deep interest in gaming and narrative creation will be my strongest assets allowing me to work on developing the themes, stories, titles, worlds, artwork and overall mood of the games, which would tie in nicely to the Media group in helping decide how the game should be marketed. While I don’t anticipate I’ll be much use to the Maker group, I suppose I could provide elements that would bring polish to some potential game designs, such as voice work to any games that might benefit from it (not only through myself but various acting contacts) or fairly basic artwork (though Olivia seems to have that pretty well covered). I am somewhat concerned that my technical knowledge and skills with things like budgeting or analytics may be too limited to be of use for the group presentation, but ultimately I will just have to wait til the time comes to find out.

The dossier is an area that, at this point, frightens me a little bit. I’m not really sure what it’ll require of me and have never put one together before. So far as I understand, it will be a document collecting all of the work I’ve done in the course basically, and then critically reflecting on my contributions and what and how I learnt. I’m sure I’ll be capable of doing it with some level of competence by the time I get to it but right now I’m just really not certain of what that level will be.

Overall, I’m loving this subject and plan to give it my all, but in my current state I do find myself occasionally struggling with the readings or technical terminology or with concepts that seem to come naturally to others in the class but are entirely foreign and new to me (though very interesting). I called this post “Anything but a Fail”, but that’s not really true. I think once I really get into the swing of things I’ll be aiming for a grade of Distinction or beyond, but now, while writing this and immediately as the question has been put to me, I’m going to say I’ll aim for a Credit. I want to really apply myself and do well, but I think that if I try for any higher right at this second I could potentially push myself into a panic, when I just want to continue enjoying the subject as much as I have been. So I intend to aim for a Credit – at least until I get my bearings.

Note: While some of the readings leave me scratching my head, others have been super engaging. One of them was the Frasca reading from this week. I chose the “which grade” topic for this blog post instead but really want to talk about Simulation 101 and look at the idea of simulation vs representation from a Lit student point of view and examine the nature of empathy in regard to both. So, I dunno, this is to remind me to write about that in another blog post because this one’s long.

DIGC310 Blogpost 3: The Magic Circle and Betrayal at House on the Hill

After the struggle last week to get a Let’s Play video up and running due to confusing rulebooks, I had a revelation; this utter confusion… This could totally be a thing. We could absolutely make a pretty alright video series on this with a watchable premise and everything! Something that is really valuable to know about a board game before purchasing it and introducing it to your friends or family is “how easy will this be to just pick up and play immediately?” Whether you have to spend some time on your own beforehand looking over the rulebook and trying to understand it well enough to explain it to your friends or can just work it out as you go along is a significant element of a games enjoyability on the first few runs, at least in my experience. Add to that the bonus that, in the world of online video, watching someone try to do something without having any previous knowledge on how to actually do it usually produces hilarious results, and you’ve got YouTube gold (or at least some fairly shiny copper)!

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Add sharp objects like knives for a sense of danger, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success! Trust me — I know.

So I grabbed one of my favourite medium-difficulty board games and headed into class to pitch the idea that we should go ahead with the Let’s Play! But this time I would explain the premise and basic rules of the game only once and without clarifications to a group of players with no previous experience, and they would have to work the rest out for themselves while we filmed and snickered from the side lines.

This didn’t end up happening. But it didn’t end up happening in THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE. The game in question was Betrayal at House on the Hill, one that I love but has received mixed receptions in the past, but enough people seemed psyched to play it that we went ahead and did just that without filming. It plays up to six people, but once various players had to drop out part way through with others taking their places I think about 9 of us actually participated. I mucked up some of the rules and the game went for way longer than usual but none of that really mattered because it was so much fun! The Banshee was THIS CLOSE to killing everyone in the research lab when she was finally banished!

I found it particularly interesting experiencing this game play while keeping in mind the concept of “The Magic Circle” which Chris talked about in the lecture. The concept originated with Johan Huizinga who talked about play as occurring in any spaces where “the ordinary world” is set aside to give way to fabricated rules and restrictions that are happily adhered to in the name of creating a sort of new virtual reality. Places “within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (Huizinga 1955, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, p. 10)

The concept can be problematic in that it is often read as though there is a distinct barrier cutting off the “real” world from the “playground” of games where this special mood takes place. As far as I understand from the lecture and further reading, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman try to alter that perception suggesting in Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later that the boundaries implied by the Magic Circle were never intended to be so rigid. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals their argument seems to be more that the willing, and joyful, suspension of reality entered into by participants at the beginning of play IS the magic circle, and that the magic circle isn’t nearly so confined or restricted as it originally appeared. “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins” (2004, p.95)

I feel like I witnessed the Magic Circle in action during this particular lesson. A virtual reality was certainly summoned into being as we accepted our roles as Ox Bellows the dumb jock and Professor Longfellow the creepy old scientist heading into a clearly haunted house with very little reason. I would also say that in these circumstances the sense of play wasn’t restricted in any way to this virtual realm of constructed rules. Despite players coming in and out of them game, confusion over rule technicalities, and even in many ways regardless of the game having finished, that sense of play lived on. And it. Was. Excellent.

Note: This is also the lesson in which we started our game designs but I think I’ll talk about that in another blog post because this one’s pretty long already.

DIGC310 Blogpost 2: Where I Fit In

For this week’s Game Cultures lesson I elected to take part in the “media group” where, after messing around with the oculus rift for a while, we decided to put together a Let’s Play video of a board game. This is how we discovered that making decisions early and sticking to them is a very necessary step in this process when you have limited time. Realising we only had an hour left we chose to spend that time sitting down and getting to know a game so that next week we would be ready to go, which I think was an excellent plan. Except that we had apparently chosen the game with the most convoluted, wibbly wobbly ruleset the world has ever seen. I know that there were adventurer characters and Indiana Jones style temple booby-traps involved, and I think I understand the basics of character movement, but that was about as far as we got before class was over and we had to wrap it up. Someone suggested that we could all go our separate ways and try to learn the game mechanics with the aid of YouTube and the rest of the internet. While I firmly believe everyone in the group has the most honourable intentions in agreeing to do this, we have set a backup of a game of Pandemic, which at least two group members have played before. Just in case.

My immediate willingness to participate in the Media group early on stems mostly from the fact that I work in this sort of area, making YouTube videos on a regular basis and engaging with audiences over social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for promotional purposes as well as interaction for interactions sake. However, I begin to fall down as a Media type regarding WordPress and blog maintenance, administration and moderator work. I have, you will note, forced myself to use WordPress at least part time this session in attempt to rectify my complete inability to understand what’s going on with that damn website.

I have intentions in the coming weeks to participate also in the Modeller group. While the kind of work that needs to be done here intimidates me somewhat, I do have quite a strong interest in game creation, especially from a thematic point of view. I have some half-baked game concept designs floating around in my brain that I hope to be courageous enough to bring to the table at some point. Modelling is perhaps the area I would like to focus on most during class over the session, but we’ll see how events develop and whether I at some point change my mind.

The Maker group is the area where I have the least experience or practical knowledge, so at the moment I am shying away from it. I do fully intend to dip my toe in at some point and learn some new things, but I will be going in almost completely blind, which is always a bit scary.

DIGC310 Blogpost 1: Review — City of Horror

This is a blog post written for my Digital Game Cultures class at university which required I limit word count, if you want to read my full review with pictures, quips, and all you can find it here.


I got far too invested in my first blog post for DIGC310, reviewing a board game I’ve played in the last week, so for anyone who doesn’t have the time to read my near 2000 words on City of Horror (and for Chris to read as part of the assessment criteria), here’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

The game requires that each player try to keep a team of survivor characters alive through four rounds of incoming zombies, scarce supplies, and blatant betrayals by other players. Significant mechanics include limited movement, limited capacities at each location, a democratic voting system to decide who gets new items or dies, among others.

The art in this game is truly fantastic, and was one of the reasons I bought it in the first place. In particular the clever use of art on the board space to make the placement of piles of items not currently in use feel natural is something that stands out, for example the barricade of sandbags behind which the restless army of undead are held, and the abandoned ambulance housing the antidotes players must scavenge throughout the game. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. The use of art serves as an excellent production element, happily using detailed images on 2D stands for characters and zombies instead of the plastic miniatures opted for in some other games which can easily warp or send the price skyrocketing.

Apart from this, however, the game is really quite disappointing.

Many characters are stereotyped, possibly in an unsuccessful attempt to mock the tropes and character archetypes of B Horror films. The characters of The Rasta, the Sushi Chef and The Student stand out as being problematic—a psychic black man, a chef who, being Asian, OBVIOUSLY makes sushi and has ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Blonde and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!

Funny.

My disappointment when I first bought the game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of sexism and racism (not mentioned by anyone in reviews while I was researching before making my purchase) was immense.

In fact, most of the media surrounding the game online was fairly misinforming. Specifically, the ‘buy me’ text attached to online store listings of City of Horror claimed that “the city map changes each game” insinuating a high level of replayability. This was a big selling point for me, so imagine my dismay when I discovered that in fact the game contained only six locations which are present in every single play through that can be flipped to reveal… More or less the exact same thing.

The game as a whole, while it does some things very right (especially when the mechanics and theme align), often feels more like an unfinished prototype, with simple instructions translated into obscure coded images in game, and the rulebook occasionally difficult to navigate on top of having some frustrating ambiguities in the way it has been translated into English by the Belgian production company.

Pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry a game.

 

City of Horrible Stereotypes

When I first bought this game, my brother Rhys, my sister Shannyn, and myself were so excited about it that we cleared off the dining table and played it all night, getting through enough games to make sure we’d tried it with every single character (of which there are many). We very quickly became attached to these little drawn figures, doing away with the bland (to us at the time) classic horror trope titles they had as designations and naming each and every one of them with love, care, and countless pop-culture references. During a brief break between the second and third games to dart off to the Macca’s drivethru, we charted out relationships, reasons for their visiting specific locations at the start of the game, entire backstories! We concocted in our minds, almost instantly, an entire miniseries based on the stories that had revealed themselves through play. But still, my opinion of this game is not a particularly good one.

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Take Rhys’ team for example! From left to right: Granny Marge the Gunshop owner, Garret the Geek who saw all this coming, Father Killigan the Irish priest, Estelle the suburban punk and her younger sibling Alex the Androgynous teen.

City of Horror is yet another member of that seemingly endless horde of zombie apocalypse themed board games currently available for purchase. It’s marketed as a “backstabbing survival-horror game” and the mechanics basically require that each player take control of a number of characters and keep them alive throughout a series of zombie waves, all the while collecting antidotes and fending off attacks. Points are earned at the end of the game mostly according to the value assigned each of the surviving characters, and are complicated by the need for antidotes to have the characters count as ‘alive’, an “exhaustion” mechanic which allows the use of a character’s ability but leaves them worth less, and added points value from tinned food and any excess antidotes. Honestly, if there are so many antidotes to the zombie virus lying around, I don’t quite see where the problem is in beating this apocalypse, but hey!

The production values for the game were the first thing that caught my eye, and a big part in why I eventually bought it. The game utilises detailed art on 2D stand figures rather than miniatures (to accommodate without extreme expense the large number of zombies required during play). The artwork is truly spectacular, and at times used in extremely clever ways. The game’s pieces are beautifully thematic, combining comic book elements with the appropriate gritty and abandoned feel of any apocalyptic setting. Most impressive to me, I think, are the clever ways the board incorporates token placement for piles of anything not in use. Antidote tokens lie atop the image of an ambulance and weapons cards similarly make use of a halted military truck. The dormant zombies are stored as if trapped behind a barricade of sandbags, and the food tin tokens lie scattered across the crossroads as if they’ve spilled from the overturned food truck. This artistic ingenuity is seen again when the character cards, flipped to their “exhausted” side, bear different artwork reflecting the change caused by that character’s power. When the Security Guard uses his ability to kill two zombies at his current location, you flip his card to find that his dog is missing from the image, as if he’s set it loose on the walking dead. The Pregnant Woman has the ability to vote for two every turn until the end of the game, but only if you allow her to give birth, an action which leaves her permanently exhausted (I mean, she can hardly put the baby back IN). Turning her card over reveals her cradling a kind of grossly accurate new born baby.

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Isn’t it lovely? Romeo and Rex are together and Baby ‘What’s That?’ is giving June back pain.
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And now June kind of misses the back pain.

Elements like this are FANTASTIC but City of Horror is bizarrely inconsistent with them. Only 3 characters out of 21 have an altered image on their flip side (one of them being The Blonde, we’ll get to her in a minute). The Thief, for example, isn’t shown on his “exhausted” side to be struggling to carry something heavy he’s stolen, which would both fit his character ability and account for his supposed “exhaustion”. Instead, the red side of his card just shows the same image of him, lithe as ever, but for some reason now worth less. The powers themselves even show this inconsistency, some of them being applied seemingly arbitrarily. The Housewife, for whatever reason, is able to kill two zombies in her current location. Sound familiar? Yep, that’s the exact same ability as the one belonging to The Vigil. Are we supposed to accept that her umbrella would have the same effect on the hordes of the undead as a trained attack dog? Similarly, The Rocker and The Geek both share the ability to move a zombie away from their location to somewhere else on the board, with no explanation as to how these characters are in any way alike (aside from the occasional image of them sitting together drinking energy drinks outside a convenience shop) or in fact, how they are able to repel a single shambler each at all.

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Hey, Garret, I didn’t know you knew Rockabilly Cliff! Um… HOW exactly do you know Rockabilly Cliff..?

Then there’s the stereotyping. It seems, from other reviews I’ve read over on Boardgamegeek.com and from the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down that these character depictions are easily brushed off as part of the theme, as the kind of characters you would see in a typical B Horror film. However, when there are games in the genre that have already done that brilliantly, such as Last Night on Earth, and when City of Horror includes survivalists that I’ve never seen in any horror movie my whole life, such as The Sushi Chef and The Punk (hey, maybe I’m just watching the wrong zombie movies), the ‘making fun of the tropes argument’ doesn’t quite cut it for me. The characters of The Rasta, The Sushi Chef, and The Student are fairly problematic—a psychic black man, an Asian chef with ninja know-how, and an Asian high schooler with an extremely short skirt as part of her sailor style school uniform. Then there’s my personal favourite (read: the depiction I hate most). The Blonde. This character doesn’t even get a special ability. Instead she is constantly screaming, which attracts a new zombie to her location every turn, and the only way to stop this is by “exhausting” her character. Flip over the card to see the alternate art for the “exhausted” Goldie and, oh hey, she’s been physically gagged!

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Yeah. Hilarious.

My disappointment when I first bought this game and discovered the thinly veiled elements of casual sexism and racism inside (not mentioned by anyone while I was researching before handing over my money, mind) was immense. I am proud to say, however, that my siblings and I, while not confident enough to alter the functions of cards like Goldie’s in case we break the game’s mechanics, are excellent at thematic spin. “Screaming?” says my brother, “She’s not screaming, that’s her battle cry! She demands that the zombies come and fight her in mortal combat!” As much as our own head canon has done a good job of putting a bandaid on the wound, this is something that would have had a huge impact on my purchase had I known about it earlier. Perhaps I could have looked harder to find out if the game would contain anything I’d be offended by, but no one should have to—it’s on the game developers to not be offensive, not the buyer to not be offended.

Speaking of things that would have impacted my purchase! There’s one major thing mentioned in the breakdown of this game that’s copy and pasted to every site where it is sold that has caught my attention while writing this blog post; “the city map changes each game”. This, when I was originally looking to buy, called to mind more expensive games I coveted like Zombicide or classics in the genre like Last Night on Earth. Games with modular map tiles that can be randomised or rearranged to create a new layout every game, with new location combinations, all adding massive replayability. This was a big selling point for me! What I got, however, was six locations that are always present, two of which are always in the same place on the board, no matter how you puzzle piece it together. These tiles CAN flip, as I’m sure was promised somewhere, but the flipped side shows the exact same image with perhaps one fewer capacity spaces or an alternate zombie limit which hardly add a lot of variety to the game play.

Possibly the biggest problem I find with this game, though, is one of the most important parts of any game; the rules. Most of the in-game instructions are provided in coded images, which is a perfectly sensible idea for saving space and getting meaning across clearly and quickly. Or at least it is if the images make any sense. I’ve played this game probably close to a dozen times and still find myself needing to clarify the meaning of many of the little vectors. Some are pretty easy to get a grasp on, like the Chainsaw or the Hideout, but when you’re trying to understand what you can do with the Pepper Spray or the Businessman’s power it can become confusing, especially given the use of the universal “recycle” symbol to mean several, slightly different things. But sure, I have to double check with the cheat sheet or the rule book sometimes, that’s not too bad! Except that the rulebook is one of the most difficult to navigate I have ever encountered. It’s deceptively simple at first, but then you notice the mistakes the Belgian publishers have made in their English which could leave a rule meaning two completely different things. Then you start to realise that some of their layout decisions make no sense, like putting the advanced set up rules on page 7 amongst the descriptions of how the game ends and is scored, rather than at the beginning of the book with, you know, the set up rules.

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But what could it mean??
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But no, seriously this time, what does it mean?

City of Horror does a lot of things right, like the spectacular moments when the mechanics and theme work together seamlessly. Someone fires a flare at the water tower leading zombies there and away from themselves, only to have the flare blow up the last of the tower’s foundations, bring it crashing down on the mindless face eaters congregated underneath, washing them away in the flood of water! But then, that doesn’t happen all that often, really. Usually it’s more along the lines of “the military have airdropped us some supplies and… It’s a kitten and some energy drink…” It often felt like an unfinished prototype in the way some of the mechanics functioned, or occasionally didn’t.

On the whole, I’ve enjoyed this game many times but most of that is thanks to the creativity of the people I was playing with. The production values played a big part in getting me to buy this game, but the pretty pictures aren’t enough to carry the game and make me content. The game needed a lot more work in its mechanics, its communication and its sensitivity training in particular.