When I interviewed Dave Gilbert earlier this year, he mentioned that while adventure games were well-suited to a wide audience, they had not made as much headway with casual gamers as they might be expected to.  The appeal of adventure games to casual gamers is obvious: adventure games often have engrossing stories, witty puzzles, and don’t require lightning-fast reflexes.  Yet, games in the genre frequently alienated the casual audience because they featured puzzles with arcane solutions and shorthands that were only obvious to those who had considerable experience with the idiosyncratic logic of the genre. The games were made with only fans in mind, and in short, Dave reasoned, they had become too “adventure game-geeky.”

Since I started blogging about and reviewing adventure games in the past few years (most seriously in the last), I’ve seen quite a number of games that have helped to open the genre to a wider audience.  To name a few, Dave’s Blackwell games, Alasdair Beckett’s Nelly Cootalot, and coding genius Vince XII’s What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed, have provided new takes on the genre, and are also solid adventure games in their own right (thanks should also go to Chris Jones, whose AGS engine has basically shouldered the delivery of adventure game development for the masses).  To this shortlist, I can now enthusiastically add Erin “The Ivy” Robinson’s Nanobots, which should not only turn on a new audience to adventure games, but provides a new perspective on the genre for we of the adventure game geek crowd.

Nanobots!Nanobots puts the player in the shoes of not one character but six — brainbot, strongbot, audbot, chembot, hotbot, and tallbot — tiny robots that love each other and work together in theory, but bicker and klutz about in practice.  Without giving away too much of the plot, which is cute beyond measure, the ‘bots must learn to overcome their differences and penchant for sarcasm… or else.  From the tutorial, in which we’re introduced to the characters’ different abilities, and onward, the dialogue is snappy and punny throughout. And while I’m generally not a huge fan of low-fi pixel art, the doodle-like appearance of the protagonists meshes pleasingly with both the story and the giddy musical score (courtesy of the inimitable Scorposer).

Beneath the game’s bright, chipper aesthetic, there is solid and innovative gameplay. The player must coordinate the unique abilities of the different ‘bots, as well as manage a limited inventory between them, as they can only hold one item at a time.  While dividing various abilities between characters has deep roots in games (cf. The Lost Vikings), as does managing a very limited inventory (pretty much anything that resembles the old river-crossing puzzle), Nanobots’ characters make this a fundamental aspect of gameplay.  In many games that feature different characters, the times in which you need to use a different character are well-demarcated to a fault (“I should use Jessica in this situation — only she speaks Spanish!”), and most of the time, one character is essentially interchangeable with another.

Nanobots‘ greatest appeal to the adventure gaming faithful is that the characters take apart the most basic elements of orthodox adventure gameplay. Case in point: I’ve been right-clicking to examine things for the better part of my natural lifetime.  Not so in Nanobots. If you aren’t actively controlling brainbot, you aren’t examining things. Thankfully your own brain gets some use, too: the use of the robots within the puzzles is intuitive, and there are a reasonable number of hints, but the game still requires some creative thinking (though, acquiring at least one inventory item toward the end is a little opaque).

Though the game is sadly somewhat brief, anyone with experience of the genre is likely to have one or two satori-like moments on their first play-through, complete with the realization that you’ve been thinking in adventure game shorthand.  And if you are new to games, or a dedicated casual gamer, you’ll find Nanobots to be a charming delight.  So on a list of great adventure games that can appeal to the casual gamer, I’m making a note here next to Nanobots: huge success.

For those of you wondering when the Isaac game is coming out, fear not.  With a new drawing tablet, I’m projecting that the game will be done by 2011 or so. Here’s a preview of the Japanese cartoon-looking version of Notwith…

..then again, maybe there should be a Notwith- game as well?  Where you drink a lot of coffee and grumble?

How to deal

June 25, 2008

Let me start my contribution this week by saying that I think there is something to the “antifunny.”  There are plenty of things that are inherently not funny (like tragedy), but when you’re tempted by the promise of something funny, and let your guard down, the antifunny is what punches you in the gut.  So, to avoid being taken advantage of, I hereby advocate a doctrine of cynicism.  If all goes well, we’ll never expect anything to be funny or good, and we will thereby be both immune to the antifunny, and even more amused when something really is funny.

While modern definitions of cynicism cast it as simply assuming the worst, the original cynics lived like dogs.  Some might balk at the idea of abandoning bathing, but if everybody did it, we would simply lose our distinction between dirty and clean, and we would never be disappointed when stains didn’t come out in the wash.  After all, we wouldn’t be wearing clothes, which would provide incentive for both physical fitness and save us hours of chore-time every week.  Perhaps the greatest proof of this is the fact that dogs are always happy, all the time. Ergo, were we to live like dogs, we would be happy.  All the time.

For those who aren’t quite ready to abandon society just yet, realize that studies have shown that disappointment is actually hardwired in the way we think.  When monkeys were given tasty food as a stimulus, pleasure centers in their brains didn’t have their maximal activity when they ate the food; rather, they were at maximum when the monkeys secured the food and were anticipating eating it.  So, if we are to court any positive expectations at all, it will be better than what we experience. Therefore, by having positive expectations, we actively cause our disappointment.

Were that not enough, abandoning expectations has the potential to take what is legitimately funny and make it funnier. Many theories of humor, such as Freud’s, include surprise as an essential element.  This is borne out experimentally, as the comedian Buddy Hackett demonstrated on the Tonight show.  Hackett instructed Carson to ask him “What’s the secret of comedy?”, and when Carson dutifully complied, saying “What’s the secret of-“, Hackett screamed in his face, “TIMING!” and the audience erupted into laughter.  By itself, no permutation of “What’s the secret of comedy?” and “Timing.” is funny; instead it is the surprise itself that is capable of rendering it humor.

In sum, the position of cynicism might look like the best of bleak options.  While it safeguards one against the antifunny, and might make for the best vehicle to experience the funny, it appears to offer little hope for actively seeking the funny.  If you can’t form an expectation, you can’t actively seek the funny.  But perhaps there is something to be found in enjoying expectations independently of fulfillment.  As Rousseau discovered,

“This vice, which shame and timidity find so convenient, has a particular attraction for lively imaginations. It allows them to dispose, so to speak, of the whole female sex at their will, and to make any beauty who tempts them serve their pleasure without the need of first obtaining her consent.”

Thus, the expectation or fantasy of pleasure itself can be cultivated or enjoyed, free from the banality of disappointment.  Indeed, the great father of Cynicism, Diogenes, understood this very example.  Living out his life in the public square, Diogenes attended to all of his needs in full view of his fellow citizens.  When confronted by friends who were horrified to see him gratifying himself unabashedly, he replied, “it’s a pity that I can’t simply rub my belly when I’m hungry.”

Two recent neologisms led me to this week’s topic: disappointment. The first is “nuke the fridge,” a film calque of “jump the shark.” In a brilliant post on the phrase, Kottke discusses its hyper-absorption by the blogerati and the ensuing backlash. Or: his (hers? its? their?) backlash of one. And so, the post ends with these thoughts:

Memes seem to be spreading so rapidly now on the web that they burn out before they can properly establish themselves. It’ll be interesting to see if nuke the fridge makes it through this ultra-virulent phase and somehow slows down enough to jump to casual mainstream usage. (more)

The second neologism comes from A.O. Scott’s review of “The Love Guru.” In explaining just how bad the movie is, Scott argues that the it is not enough to simply say the movie is not funny. “No, “The Love Guru” is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again.” (link) It’s this type of insight that makes Scott’s reviews must read even if he doesn’t always have the most discerning eye.

The fact that someone decided to create an unnecessary film version of “jump the shark” attests to the seriousness we attach to being letdown by so-called “low” culture. Someone was so disappointed by “Indiana Jones” that they needed to create a whole new idiom for it, despite the fact that “jump the shark” is already used attributively (as in its main urban dictionary definition); it’s really only a matter of time before the word becomes acceptable in academic discourse, and/or used to describe a once-great bartender who can now scarcely muddle a julep. Likewise, Scott needed a new term for his review. “Funny” is a subjective category; saying you don’t find something funny is almost a challenge to the next person to find it funny. “Antifunny” looks to be an inherent quality, something that Michael Haneke might go for were he to direct a comedy. In my opinion, the word is so useful, that I’ve decided to do my part in ultra-virulently spreading the meme.

Antifunny also takes the movie out of the realm of disappointment. Disappointments, are often reevaluated, given a new lease on life (this yahoo answers thread has a nice list). Works can be ahead of their time, or released a little too late. While both De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” and the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” are considered classics, De La’s album came out a few months earlier, and “Paul’s Boutique” was forever endowed with a silver medal. [A wrote a way-too-long post about this about a year and a half ago.

In short, disappointments are a temporal matter and can really only be determined after the fact.

For example, is it “disappointing” that Big Brown didn’t win the Triple Crown? Sure, but history may not really think so. If his Belmont is any indication, Big Brown might just go down as the worst Derby-Preakness winner of all-time. What is really disappointing, and only so in retrospect, is the fact that Point Given didn’t win the Kentucky Derby. At the time, losing the derby upsets people close to the horse, fans, and gamblers. But looking back at years later, Point Given’s loss is devastating, a supreme disappointment. Not only did he win the second two legs of the triple crown, he went on to win both the Haskell and the Travers, becoming the only horse to win 4 million dollar races in a row. Point Given was a super-horse whose lone bad race happened to be the Kentucky Derby. Or the election of 2000. In 2000 it was a little disappointing but in hindsight, truly devastating.

To that end I propose some neologisms of my own. Maybe we need to have “antipointments,” things so bad that not only do they disappoint, they never have a chance of appointing us. Or the German-sounding “distranspointments”, things that only reveal themselves to be disappointing with or over time. I’m as open to ideas as the next person. Just don’t disappoint me.

Editor’s Note: Yesterday’s Salad is happy to welcome our newest contributor Dora Weatherbottom/Elsie Hartpence. As with all contributors, we will no doubt grow to love her only to see her disappear into the internet ether and wonder whither has she gone.

It was 2am.  I couldn’t sleep.  I was flipping between Cops and a Sex and the City rerun and suddenly I asked myself (in an SJP voice, obviously): what makes me an American?

And then I pondered…

On a recent semester in the south of Spain, I was forced to think about what it is exactly that defines me as an American.  There was something that caused me to not want to set the record straight when I was labeled as an “Inglessa” or a “Sueca” by some unknowing Spaniard.  During my time in Europe, I wasn’t particularly proud to be an American- it was tragic.  I found myself looking the other way when I saw a group of particularly obnoxious (inebriated) Americanos stumbling out of a discotec, and immediately being on the defensive when others discussed the Iraq War in my international relations seminar. I constantly felt the need to justify myself, to show that I’m not a “dumb American” the second my nationality slipped out of my mouth. Although, I do admit, I did stare in fascination at the female compatriot I saw lurching about outside a bar, yelling into her cell phone, “DAAAAD, I’m not here to study, I’m here to get WAASTED.”  It was a classy moment for our nation indeed.

There is so much that infuriates me about this country.  I observe everything, from eating habits to traffic patterns, and find fault.  I’m not proud of the United States right now, but I want to be.  What makes me American is my belief in the United States, my belief not in the government, but in the people.  I believe with all my heart that this country is ours for the taking.

As an American, I think I owe it to my country to work toward its betterment.  We all do.  Everyone here, everyone that believes Yesterday’s Salad to be completely accessible, has been greatly privileged- I’m willing to bet- in their education and place in society.  We live in a country of incredible opportunity and incredible inequalities.  Money, opportunity, education, and social status are so interconnected.  We can’t deny that the families that we are born into greatly effect our paths in life and the opportunities we pursue.  If my father didn’t have a post-graduate education, I probably wouldn’t think of getting a master’s degree as a logical step in my education. Read the rest of this entry »

Wither citizenship?

June 20, 2008

Enjoy today’s response, now in podcast form.