Without Saving: My Journey with Swords and Sandals 2

When I was in high school, I stumbled onto a little-known online RPG called Swords and Sandals 2.  The game is fairly straightforward: you play as a gladiator (whom you get to name) during the Roman era, with different stats in the following:

  • Strength – Your attacks do +2 damage with each additional point.
  • Agility – You move faster, and unlock additional Ranged Weapons.  You also get tired faster
  • Attack – You grow your odds at landing attacks with each point.
  • Defense – You grow your odds at defending attacks with each point.
  • Vitality – Each point adds 10 HP to your health.
  • Charisma – Your attacks win over the crowd more, winning you extra coins more easily
  • Stamina – You get tired less easily and your rests restore more health
  • Magicka – You unlock special magic spells and enchantments that you can buy

When you click on the Arena, you have the option to engage in gladiatorial combat.  You and a CPU opponent take turns choosing moves such as Walk Forward, Lunge, etc.  In close quarters, you can choose to take a Quick attack (easy to do damage), a Normal attack, or a Power attack (hard to do damage, but heavy damage when dealt).  The higher your skill is in Attack, the better your odds are in all of these categories.  But if your opponent’s defense is high, the benefits of your Attack are mitigated.

Example: In a given fight, a Quick Attack might have a 93% chance of success that deals 10 damage, whereas a Power Attack will have a 43% chance of success that deals 35 damage.

Outside of tournament play, you fight your opponent until you weaken his armor and draw first blood.  The winner wins coins and EXP points and the loser loses coins.  Gain more EXP to level up and unlock tournaments.  In tournaments, you have to fight a list of gladiators including a boss gladiator, and this play is to the death.

You start off with 2500 coins.  You can use them to purchase Armor from the armory to build up your armor, and you unlock more armor as you level up in EXP.

You also have the option of purchasing advanced weaponry, either as Swords, Axes, Bashing Weapons like hammers, or Ranged Weapons.  Swords and Ranged Weapons are unlocked in correspondence to your Agility, while Axes and Bashing Weapons correspond to your Strength.  You unlock a new weapon for every 3 Agility and 3 Strength, respectively.

There is some minor strategy in maximizing your money in terms of when to buy things to give you the best advantage over your opponent, as well as choosing which opponents to duel with in the non-tournament mode to minimize risk of losing in order to earn the most money and therefore the best armor and weaponry.  The majority of the strategy is choosing your moves in the Arena.

You also can choose to purchase various boosting magic spells and potions that restore health, armor, and stamina.

The goal of the game is to progress through tournaments and level up until you eventually fight the evil Emperor Antares.

I became interested in this game due to its strategic turn-based gameplay as well as the choices I needed to make in terms of which stats to level up and how this affected my chances.  The version online that I found only went up through three tournaments, so I typically would have some short fun with the game and then be done with it.

A few years ago, I found the game again, only this time a new free version had been released online [1], allowing you to play through the game in its entirety with one small catch: the “save” feature didn’t work, so if you died, all your progress was lost in an instant.

This was the summer before coming to CMU so with some free time on my hands, I gave the game another shot, and after various failed attempts at progressing past four or five tournaments, I figured out a winning strategy:

I needed to upgrade my Agility as soon as possible, while maintaining a steady increase in Attack as well.  See, the Swords that you are able to unlock at higher levels do some extremely brutal damage (the highest-level sword deals 627 damage for a Power Attack, the most in the game), so it became clear that if I unlocked a weapon, quickly, with high-damage potential and enough Attack to at least give myself decent odds at landing a killing blow in one shot, I would be at an advantage.

The other trick was to also use this Agility to buy increasingly powerful Ranged Weapons.  Being able to run around the board and shoot my opponent from a distance to lower his armor without even putting myself in range of being critically hurt gave me an additional advantage.

And then, all of a sudden, I was off, winning tournaments at ease and leveling up to increasingly higher stats.  But I still needed to be careful – because one false step, one wrong move in which an opponent landed a Critical Hit and I died because of bad luck, and it would all be over.

And I began to realize “This is closer to what being a real gladiator must have felt like than what it would be like if the Save feature worked.”  Even the best gladiators in the world needed to be careful with their moves and their strategy because even the greats could lose, and a loss meant death.  Had the Save feature worked, I could have played matches extremely loosely and with little regard for my actions because if I died, no worries.  I could just restart from my last match.

In the end, I spent 9 total hours playing the game without stopping and made it all the way to the final battle against Emperor Antares, but he pinned me against the side of the arena, blocked my Whirlwind attack, and I died.

But the experience stayed with me, and it made me start thinking about the types of games that can capture this kind of verisimilitude with the lack of a Save feature:

  • Sports games certainly can, at least in the vacuum of playing singular matches, but less so in the long-term.
  • Games with short adventures like Luigi’s Mansion certainly can.
  • But could you play a Zelda game with the Save feature turned off to try and capture what it must have been like to be venturing out into the world, feeling low on supplies, but having to go on anyway because you had to?

I began to wonder where the line should be.  At what point is not having a Save feature basically torture despite the benefit of realism?  Is it dependent on how much content there is in the game?  Swords and Sandals 2 doesn’t have a whole lot of changing locations or environments in it, nor does it have a lot of overworld exploring or backtracking where a player might get stuck.  There also isn’t a sweeping narrative you have to sit through if you restart it. It is a 9 hour game, not a 70 hour game, is that why it worked?  At what point is a Save feature needed because to play a game nonstop for more than a day is detrimental to the players’ actual health?

I suppose, even if it is available, a player always has the option to just not use the Save feature in an effort to capture a realistic experience, but I think that at a certain point, anyone will end up using it because we naturally want the safety net and we get tired.

Maybe there should be a “no Save” option on certain RPGs and games, where players, if they want to, can play through the entire plot without saving.  So many games feature the spectre of death in their narratives, but very few of them evoke a feeling even close to it in real life, because you, as the player, know that even if you die, you can just try again from a fairly close checkpoint.  My playthrough of Swords and Sandals 2 wasn’t literal life and death, but knowing that Jean Valjean (the name of my character) would be lost forever with one wrong move gave a level of urgency and focus that otherwise would not have been there.

Suffice to say, I have yet to fully return to the game since that playthrough.  I’ve noodled around on it once or twice, but I haven’t felt the need to beat it anymore, feeling like I “lived it” enough.  Maybe that should be a goal of certain games in the future.  Sacrifice the joys of replayability to enable one-time playthroughs that feel as “real” as possible.

[1] http://swordandsandals.top/swords-and-sandals-2-full-version/

How Super Mario Party Solved Its “Gimmick” Problem and Revitalized the Series

First, I’ll say off the top: I love Nintendo.  I was introduced to Mario games as a kid and have many fond memories playing them with my family.  The original Mario Party was one of the first games I played with my cousins and it holds a dear place in my heart.  So, naturally, when I got a Nintendo Switch this past Christmas, they gave me Super Mario Party as a gift.  After playing it, I instantly loved it.

Super Mario Party

Taken as a whole, I have mixed feelings about the Mario Party series, with my opinions oscillating from game-to-game.  Yet there is no doubt the influence it has on my mind, as I realized that the Hopscotch game I just designed for Game Design class borrowed several elements from the series.  Now, while discussing dice games in class, I revisited my newfound love for Super Mario Party.

After many years of Mario Party games that tried out new styles of gameplay, Super Mario Party returns the series back to its original style:

  • Four players take turns rolling dice and moving around a board
  • You collect coins via spaces and mini-games that play at the end of every turn
  • You then trade coins in to buy stars, and the player with the most stars at the end wins.

I appreciated the game’s return to what the series is at its core very much, but it was the way the game did so that made me smile.  It feels like a board game now.  And by incorporating some new mechanics such as meaningful character selection and Custom Dice Blocks into the gameplay, as well as by paring back some design flaws from previous games, Super Mario Party strikes a delicate balance between strategy, chance, and character.

Rather than including dozens of wacky power-ups, Super Mario Party allows players to focus on a select group of strategic items.  The game also directs its focus towards the “dice” aspect of Mario Party, which makes it feel more like a board game.  And, finally, it makes choosing your character a meaningful, strategic decision.  In doing so, the game helps solve the series’ continuous problem of feeling too gimmicky.

What Are Gimmicks?

Gimmicks are fairly ubiquitous in Nintendo games, especially within the Mario franchise.  A Mario game typically has some sort of power-up or shtick that is utilized in the gameplay.  Super Mario Bros. 3 is famous for introducing players to the Tanooki Suit, and the more recent Super Mario 3D World introduces Cat Mario into the fray.  Usually, however, the single-player Mario adventures are rich enough with puzzles and multi-varied levels that the gimmicks never feel like they are overwhelming the gameplay.

The same cannot be said wholly for multiplayer Mario games.  These games, from Mario Tennis to Mario Kart to even Super Smash Bros., include dozens of different power-ups, and taken to the extreme create a sense of chaos that considerably reduces strategy in these cases.  Basically, the gimmicks end up dominating the game more than the players’ decisions do.

Take Super Smash Bros. for example – a match played in which every item is turned up to Very High Probability is typically decided by who is standing next to a Smash Ball or Assist Trophy than on the players’ fighting abilities.

A Super Smash Bros. Ultimate fight with a Smash Ball

Of course, for all these games, the solution is simple: If you want to play them without gimmicks, simply turn them off.  Play Mario Tennis on a standard course with no power-ups.  Turn the Mario Kart items to Basic so that the game-changing Blue Shells and Bullet Bills don’t appear.  Play Super Smash Broson Final Destination with no items appearing.

These gimmicks help make these games what they are and in small doses, they can add augmentations to strategy.  If you can focus on a small number of gimmicks, you can think hard about the correct ways to utilize them.  This allows you to focus both on the core gameplay mechanics as well as the utilization of the gimmicks.  This is in sharp contrast with when there are too many gimmicks.  Here, so much is happening that you more or feel like the gimmicks happen to you because they are too much to keep track of.  That being said, sometimes wacky fun is a good thing.

Basically, in all these cases, players can self-balance the gimmicks as they choose to, in-game, for their optimal experience.

And, these games have always had meaningful character selection.  As the courses and items in the Mario Kart series became more zany, you got more kart parts and weight classes related to your character choice to choose from.  Super Smash Bros. has its ever-increasing cast of characters to the point it is almost overwhelming, but nonetheless allows you to make that first choice.  So even if a match becomes a bout of “item warfare”, you are still running around feeling like you and your character are bringing unique abilities to the table.  It’s not completely random.  There was, at the very least, strategy in the character selection.

Mario Party is trickier because:

  • There is no turn-off feature for items and other gimmicks, and, to be honest, Mario Party without these features is almost all luck.
  • Character selection, up until Super, for the most part didn’t matter other than for aesthetic variations between them.

Note: For the case of this post, I’m mainly considering the console Mario Parties.  I generally prefer the console versions because sitting around one large screen with your friends feels more communal and together than everyone individually looking at their handheld screens.  Thus, I haven’t played the handheld Mario Parties much at all.

What is Mario Party’s History with Strategy?

In the original Mario Party, all of the strategy comes from the mini-games.  On the board, there is some decision-making in terms of which directions to take along the boards, and there are some different star-collecting rules built into the different boards for variety, but outside of the mini-games, players are beholden to the randomness of their dice block numbers.

Mario Party 2 was the first to add items into the gameplay.  In the game, you won them by landing on Item Spaces and winning subsequent single-player mini-games, or by buying them with coins.  This added at least some strategy to choosing which item to buy and when to use it.  Mario Parties 3 and 4 expanded on this idea by allowing you to have up to three items in your inventory.

Mario using a Golden Mushroom in Mario Party 2

However, in Mario Party 5, items were dropped in favor of capsules.  Instead of being able to choose which items to buy, you were given capsules at random.  And, although there were some capsules you could use on yourself, for the most part you threw capsules onto spaces in front of you to either try and help you or mess up your opponents.  Basically, the strategy element from the previous games was minimized in favor of more randomness.

And, the variety of items expanded dramatically.  Whereas the items in Mario Party 2 were either simple Mushrooms that allowed you to roll multiple dice blocks or Warp Blocks that allowed you to teleport to an opponent’s space, by Mario Party 5, there were Bob-ombs and Ukikis and Goombas that each did a different action like swapping out players’ coins or stealing coins or shuffling capsules.  It became very hard to keep track of.

Yoshi about to use a Capsule in Mario Party 5

In turn, your energy while playing became dominated by figuring out what these capsules were doing.  It didn’t feel good to forget which capsules did what and then have a different event happen than you expected.

Mario Parties 6, 7, and 8 tried to change this, at least somewhat, by allowing you to buy capsules of your choice from shops (called Orbs in 6 and 7, and Candies in 8), but the problem of there being too many to keep track of persisted.  These games were a lot about watching different Orb or Candy Events play out when people landed on spaces, rather than on the board game gameplay.

Mario Parties 7, and 8 also reduced strategy in their endgames.  For the first five Mario Parties, Bonus Stars were given out at the end of games to the:

  • Mini-Game Star: The player who won the most coins in mini-games.
  • Coin Star: The player who, at any point, had the highest number of coins.
  • Happening Star: The player who landed on the most “? Spaces.”

This allowed you to focus on winning the most mini-games if you wanted to, or on collecting coins if you wanted to, knowing that you would get a reward at the end of it.  Mario Party 6 would replace the Coin Star with the Orb Star, but the point was the same: you knew what Bonus Stars would be given out at the end and could plan accordingly. 

However, starting with Mario Party 7, the series started introducing more kinds of Bonus Stars, like the Running Star and the Red Star.  Out of six potential Bonus Stars, three would be given out at random at the end of a game.  Another potentially strategic element reduced to chance.

Then, with Mario Party 9, Nintendo changed the direction of the series, wherein all of the players moved around in a single vehicle and shared the results of each other’s dice rolls.  This was understandable, given that feedback from the more recent games was mixed.  I actually enjoyed playing the game’s single-player mode, but the truth is it stopped feeling like Mario Party.  Trying to collect mini-stars instead of coins in order to buy big stars was not the game I or anyone else had originally loved (although Mario Party 9 did have some great mini-games).

Shy Guy rolling in Mario Party 9

It is worth noting that Mario Party 9 was the first game to switch from the series’ traditional 1-10 Dice Block and to an ordinary 1-6 Dice Block.  Plus, when a player jumped to hit the block, the number wouldn’t immediately pop out.  The Dice Block would bounce around on screen for a bit before settling onto a number.  Instead of feeling like you were hitting a power-up block in a standard Mario game, this small change helped make you feel like you were actually rolling dice inside a board game (Super retained this feature).

Speaking of dice, Mario Party 9 also introduced the concept of different kinds of dice.  Instead of collecting items, you could collect 1-2-3 Dice Blocks, or 4-5-6 Dice Blocks, or Slow Dice Blocks so you could aim for a specific number.  Mario Party 10, which repeated Mario Party 9’s all-in-a-vehicle style of gameplay, continued with this concept of multiple dice, introducing Double Dice Blocks into the mix.

Meanwhile (touching on the handhelds for a short bit), Mario Party Star Rush introduced players to a mechanic of finding Mario characters scattered around the board game map, bringing them onto your team, and with them a special kind of Dice Block.

Keep in mind, at this point throughout Mario Party‘s entire history, every character’s abilities were the same*. Starting with the original when you could choose between Mario, Luigi, Peach, Yoshi, Wario, or Donkey Kong, this selection was purely aesthetic.  And though the roster expanded over the years, it only did so aesthetically*.

Mario Party Character Selection

*In Mario Party 7, each pair of characters (Mario & Luigi, Peach & Daisy, etc.) had a special Orb that they could collect, which helped with character variety a little bit.  Still, collecting these Orbs was inherently random, and still a few steps removed from characters having abilities that befitted the type of game you’re playing.*

So, with Super going back to the series’ traditional gameplay, what did it do to ground the series in its roots while maintaining “just” enough style to revitalize it?

Super Mario Party: Character Selection Befitting a Board Game

The biggest key, more than any other, is that it made character choice matter.  In other multiplayer Mario titles, what matters (with or without the gimmicks) is the abilities of the character you choose.  It is about the weight class and acceleration/speed of the Mario Kart character you choose, or the specific fighting abilities of the Super Smash Bros. character you choose.  So:

  • Mario Kart (Racing Game) = Specialized driving abilities
  • Super Smash Bros. (Fighting Game) = Specialized fighting abilities
  • Super Mario Party (Board Game) = ?

For Super Mario Party (in helping restore its board game roots), it is about the specialized Dice Block abilities of the character you choose.  Each player has a special Dice Block that you can choose to roll on your turn (i.e. Mario has a 1,3,3,3,5,6 Block, Luigi has a 1,1,1,5,6,7 Block, Peach has a 0,2,4,4,4,6 Block, etc.).  So, on a given turn, you can choose to roll a traditional 1-6 block or your character’s Special Block.  So, you get to choose your odds with every roll.  And, because these odds are connected to the character you chose, it feels like it connects back to your first, starting decision.

Mario and his special Dice Block

Plus, this feature gets augmented with the addition of Ally Spaces around the board, where you get to add an additional Mario character to your team and then get the option of rolling his/her Dice Block (similar to Star Rush).  Not only is it aesthetically pleasing to watch your team of Mario characters slowly grow, it gives you more decisions to make in terms of which Dice to roll on a given turn.  Allies also help you in certain mini-games, making their presence that much more valuable.

Star Rush allowed you find characters around the game board and collect them and their Special Dice Blocks, but not so with your starting character.  Plus, these characters in Star Rush appeared randomly throughout the board, so it felt less like a full choice.  In Super Mario Party, you get that first choice.  And if the dice fail you, you can say “Well… it was my choice.  I gambled and lost.”

Super Mario Party: Item Selection and Choice

Going back to items for a bit, Super Mario Party pares these down as well.  It includes the traditional mushroom items that give you boosts to your Dice Block rolls, as well as a warping mechanism to go directly to the star (in this game the Golden Pipe).  It also includes the Custom Dice Block, which allows you to choose your Dice Block roll number between 1 and 6, which is a tremendous bit of strategy.  You can spend your money on mushrooms to go faster, or buy Custom Dice Blocks to aim your characters at the spaces you want.

Luigi choosing an Item

Basically, the game takes the Mario Party 2 approach of having a small group of key items for you to worry about, not a smorgasbord of wacky items that overwhelm the gameplay.


The original Mario Party debuted and (outside of its signature mini-games) was a game more about the randomness of your dice rolls than strategy.  Mario Party 2 attempted to rectify this by adding items for you use as you saw fit, but as the series progressed, this feature began to dominate the gameplay.  It made a game less about the core board game design and more about throwing items, capsules, orbs, or candies around and hoping for the best.  Then, the series pivoted away completely from traditional gameplay.

Super Mario Party brought the series back, both in terms of traditional Party Mode gameplay and in terms of its board game roots, by redirecting its focus to be about the decision-making process that comes with choosing what kind of Dice Blocks to roll and how to acquire new and different ones.  The game personalized these decisions by having these different Dice Blocks be connected to characters and, first and foremost, the character you initially choose.

Playing as Luigi

The game did what every other multiplayer Mario series had been doing for years: made character selection meaningful.  And, needing items for the strategy they provide, the game pared down the amount of items to worry about so they can add to the experience, not take it over.

Of course, no game is perfect.  Super still employs a randomized list of Bonus Stars to be given out at the end of a game.  Only two stars are given out, but these two are chosen from a list of nine different types, and I do wish that list were smaller.  I also wish that the Golden Pipe cost more in Super, as it can be sometimes easy to stock up on coins and continually buy Golden Pipes to grab stars continuously.  I wish that there were more boards available to play with, and that the ones that were available were a touch bigger.

However, although some of the content might be limited, the possibility of choice and variety within that content is very strong, and I’m happy with the direction the series has taken.

Oh, and the mini-games are pretty great too.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones: The Unsatisfaction of a Loyal Adaptation

Last year, I played through Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series and it has stayed with me ever since.  I have been an avid fan of the TV show for many years, yet my feelings for the game adaptation have always been a touch confused since I played it, never sure if I loved it or was angry with it.  And yet, my mind has consistently come back to it, searching for Let’s Plays on YouTube or reading analyses of Rodrik Forrester and Ludd Whitehill on the various fan pages that exist online.

Rodrik Forrester

It seems that my mixed feelings regarding the game are shared by many.  Its reviews, on average, exist in the mid-70th percentile, and there are wide swings around that average, with a 4.5/5 from GamesRadar but a 64% from Metacritic and a deadly 2/5 from Hardcore Gamer.  Though reactions vary from review to review, there is a clear consensus among them all: people feeling that their decisions didn’t matter and the ending being unsatisfying and “too gloomy” [1].

These reactions can be contrasted with Telltale’s other game adaptation of a vast TV series with many characters and many deaths.  Telltale’s The Walking Dead is almost universally praised, with an 89% from Metacritic and an aggregate around the 90th percentile [2].  In addition to the prevailing sentiment that the game put Telltale on the map and revolutionized narrative gaming, there are many who believe the game to be superior to the TV show on which it is based.

Lee and Clementine

And these reviews have a point – I cried at several points when I first played the game.  I was pulled in to the dynamic between Lee and Clementine.  And Lee’s death made me have to turn off my computer and just emotionally think about what I had just watched for a while.

However, it is worth noting that, on the large scale of things, your choices don’t matter a whole lot in The Walking Dead either.  Lee dies at the end of Season One regardless of what you do.  And yet – this didn’t and doesn’t seem to bother people that much, myself included. (I have yet to play subsequent seasons of the series, so I will be referring to Season One for the purposes of this post).

My feeling is that this contrast has to do with the parent series that the respective games are adapting as well as the way by which the games were adapted.

Both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones lean into their respective genres and parent series significantly, with heavy focus on aesthetic and feel.  But Game of Thrones has more “winks” to its TV show than The Walking Dead does.  Several subplots exist mainly to showcase TV show characters (i.e. Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow).  These characters, removed from the main plot, have short interactions with the game characters that ultimately lead to underdeveloped relationships with them that do not really matter in the end.

Daenerys and Asher Forrester

This is different somewhat with Mira’s storyline, as you are constantly having to shift allegiances between Cersei Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Margaery Tyrell in order to survive, so these characters have more of a presence.  The same can be said with regards to Ramsay Snow in the central Ironrath storyline – Ramsay exists as a spectre hanging over the plot, and he physically returns to the storyline enough times to augment this presence.

But the bottom line remains the same – the game characters do not have fully formed relationships with the TV characters.  It feels like the TV characters stepped into the game space to interact with the game characters, but ultimately feel removed from the game characters’ emotions and feelings.  They’re action objects for all intents and purposes.

The same is true with The Walking Dead, only this technique is used significantly more sparingly.  Hershel is introduced early in Episode 1 and before you can develop a dynamic with him, you leave his farm.  Glenn is an ally during the rest of the events of Episode 1, but subsequently leaves to forge his own path and you don’t hear from him again.  This is about all the “winking” that The Walking Dead needs.  Comparisons can be made from show characters to the game characters (one could argue that Lee is a more damaged, morally grey version of Rick and that Clementine is a more empathetic and capable Carl), but these comparisons are done more subtley and indirectly.

Truly, you do not need to have seen the show to get the gist of the story.  Lee and Clementine are their own protagonists.  In Game of Thrones, literal show plot moments happen in the game, like the Red Wedding or Joffrey’s Wedding, so you’re constantly wondering where in the plot the show is, or where the Forrester plot fits in within it.  So, you’re inherently now thinking about the “big picture” with regards to this narrative.  In The Walking Dead, with less of this going on, you’re more focused on the characters and what they are doing.

The Walking Dead goes really small with its characters.  Much of the conversations or choices you have to make (i.e. choosing who to give food to, choosing to teach Clementine to shoot) are intimate, and the character relationships are paramount.  How the other characters feel about you, Lee, the protagonist, is very very important, and these relationships are reiterated over and over.

So at the end, the climax, in truth, is the Stranger (who is a foil to Lee – that of a man similar to him having lost everything) calling Lee out on all the bad stuff he did (because no gamer is perfect and is bound to make a decision that had negative consequences for someone).  So you, the gamer, are inherently thinking about Lee as a person during this climax.  You’re thinking “Yes, he/I did these things, but I had to do it to protect Clementine.  I need to save her now.”  And that’s what you do.

Lee confronts The Stranger

So then, as you die, you’re not necessarily thinking about “Was there something I could have done to have prevented this death?”  No.  You’re thinking about whether or not, at the end of the day, this run-down ex-convict was a good person, and whether or not Clementine can carry on his legacy.  And because you made Lee’s decisions, you can easily connect these emotions to yourself.  “I’m crying out of sadness because Lee is dying, but I am also crying out of joy because Clementine loves me, and she lives.”

Whereas, in Game of Thrones, the central conflict is not personal – it’s external: saving the home of House Forrester, Ironrath.  Most character conversations are about machinations to try to do so: from King’s Landing (Mira getting support to send North), from Essos (Asher bringing in the sellswords), from Beyond the Wall (Gared meeting the bastards), and in the North (Rodrik negotiating with the Whitehills).

Not to say that there are not smaller personal conflicts within this narrative.  Some of the more touching relationships include: Mira’s dynamic with the other handmaiden, Sarah, the only friend she has; Asher’s brotherly bond with Beskha, whom has known him for years; Rodrik’s romance with Elaena, whom he has also known for years.  These relationships shine because of the history that stems from them.  They feel very real and it is not to say that these don’t have payoffs.  They are just not the central payoff.

The central conflict is “can the Forrester land be saved?”, not “can Lee redeem himself/save Clementine?”  And the answer to this question is no – Ironrath falls regardless of what you do.  This is an external question, so the idea of what kind of person you were in the process carries less weight, makes it more nihilistic, and is inherently more unsatisfying.

The fall of Ironrath

With regardless to the level of emotionalism derived from the characters, some of this has to do with the respective IP.  Game of Thrones inherently is bigger in scope, so characters are not able to have the same level of screen time that The Walking Dead characters have.  The relationships that feel the most fully-formed are the already-existing ones that carry backstory with them, not the ones that develop in-game.  However, it is shame that Season 2 of the series will never happen, because one wonders what might have been had these characters had more time to develop like the show characters did.

And yet, Game of Thrones is loyally true to its parent series.  Through the lens of the Forresters, we feel what the Starks felt throughout the early seasons of the show: that no matter what we do, so-and-so is going to betray us or this loved one will die, or we’ll have to make the difficult choice to protect the House only to have the House collapse anyway.  The feeling of hopelessness is Game of Thrones, and the broad scope of its characters is Game of Thrones.  Owen S. Good at Polygon writes that the look and feel of the game is what got him hooked on Westeros and the show. [3]

The Walking Dead tells its own story, removed from its parent series, and channels its focus by showing us the details of developing character relationships that feel authentic.  Game of Thrones tells its story within its parent series (and with the consistent “winks” you’re always comparing it to the show), has moderately developed characters that carry backstory with them, and makes you think about high-level machinations that ultimately end in failure (like the show did in its early seasons).

This has left me thinking constantly about it.  Was me being unsatisfied a good thing?  Is that in tune with the show?  What decisions could I have made not to change the overall outcome, but to get the “best story” within it?   This is a very intellectual exercise and befits the more removed nature of the game.

It is telling that the most gut-wrenching choice in the game, choosing between Rodrik or Asher to live at the end of Episode 5, is not the characters’ choice; it’s your choice, removed from the narrative but getting to construct it.  I kept coming back to this moment over and over again not with regards to how much it hurt; but with regards to which choice made the most narrative sense.

Choose who dies: Rodrik or Asher

In conclusion, Telltale’s The Walking Dead vs. Telltale’s Game of Thrones shows us that when constructing sweeping narratives, first we need to go small and take time with our characters.  Secondly, especially when adapting a story, we need to not be constantly “winking” to the audience and drawing comparisons to it, because this takes people out of the story that’s actually being told.  Tell a story, not a comparison.  Yet we also need to indeed stay true to the feel of the source material, which Telltale’s Game of Thrones certainly does.

I probably think about Game of Thrones more than The Walking Dead, because I keep wondering about its high-level structure and what could have been tweaked to improve it.  And maybe with another season or two, the game could have matched the show and allowed its low-level character development to catch up.

This is because the low-level is where the emotion comes from.  Game of Thrones has it in spades, but needed more.  The Walking Dead has it at its center.  That is why Game of Thrones is an interesting thought experiment, while The Walking Dead is beloved.

[1] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/game-of-thrones-a-telltale-games-series

[2] https://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/the-walking-dead-a-telltale-games-series

[3] https://www.polygon.com/2018/9/22/17890364/telltale-games-shut-down-closes-game-of-thrones-walking-dead

A Tale of Two Semesters

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” carries a lot of weight for me with regards to the fall semester that I just completed.  In addition to my ETC project, I also took RPG Writing as an elective, while simultaneously acting as one of six Visual Story TAs for the first-year students.  I also participated on a successful Pitch Project team and completed an extracurricular project on AR sound design at the same time, so I guess I should solve world hunger next.  Kidding.

Anyway, all of these endeavors carried with them complicated results.  My ETC project never gelled in harmony together the way HomeFront did, and as a result our final product ended up more incomplete than we had hoped, which was a letdown.  Also the stuff I had wanted to do on the project – creative design and a lot of playtesting – ended up becoming secondary, and producing has never been my primary interest.  Also, I didn’t get to do as much hands-on TA work that I had wanted to do, but I got to see Visual Story from the other side, watch first years grow over the course of the semester, and ran some fun workshops, which was good.  And while the extracurricular sound project I was on didn’t end up winning, we had a lot of fun making it.

The biggest successes for me came from RPG Writing and on the Pitch team.  Following the summer, my confidence was struggling to find itself, but in RPG Writing, I ended up back in the environment I feel the most comfortable in – writing.  Me and the team I was on managed to sift through a 500-page book on the IP Mindjammer and managed to create a campaign story that’s pretty cool.  I’ve heard from many professionals that writing in the real world is a team endeavor, and this was my first time being on a writing team.  And – wouldn’t you know it – I felt comfortable and self-actualized on a writing team and felt confident in my ideas.

The same can be said with the pitch team – I was brought on as the required second year, yet I still felt that my knowledge of the process and of general storytelling was impactful in our project getting picked up for next semester – we will be exploring spatial jump cuts in VR, so look out for new links to our project website soon.

Oh, and during all of this, I submitted a VR story I developed, Don’t Be Afraid, to the XR Alliance, a competition for writers.  I didn’t win, but I was selected as one of 11 finalists out of more than 600 applicants, so I’ll take it.

But beneath all of this professional minutiae is the social element.  The pitch team gelled instantly, laughing about movies and having brainstorming sessions that were always full of smiles.   One of the guys I worked on RPG Writing with, whom I had also worked with over the summer, felt like he always had my back, and vice versa.

Beyond that, I made some wonderful friends at CMU this semester.  It’s all well and good to be a part of a great group of people, but that’s not the same as having people to connect to and confide with on a personal level about work, life, anything.  I’m not gonna call you out, but if you were either my co-producer on my project, or my fellow TA who happened to write a script with me about a mindmap, you know who you are.  Thanks folks.

So yeah – my ETC project was not as successful as I or any of us wanted it to be.  But at the same time, I started the semester feeling a bit untethered, professionally and socially, and now it’s better.  In that sense, this has been my most rewarding semester at the ETC.

One more semester to go.  Let’s make it count.

A Long But Rewarding Summer

This summer I was pulled and pushed in more ways than one, and in the moment it was a lot, but now as I reflect I’m grateful for it, and I expect Future Me to be so as well.

I took on the position of Production TA for CMU’s NHSGA (National High School Game Academy) over the summer, where 16-year-old teens interested in making games get to spend six weeks learning and making computer and VR games with each other.  It is very similar to BVW in there being teams of five needing to work together to make something great.

By far, the most rewarding aspect of this process were these students.  Looking that their experiences from the other side, I could see their expressions and mannerisms shift from being worried and scared to being proud.  I got the chance to mentor five of these students (each TA had five mentees), and getting to hear their own thoughts about the design process, or narrative ideas, or interpersonal values, was fantastic.  There is actually a scientifically defined term Naches which is the joy you feel when someone you mentor succeeds, and I felt that a lot.  The students gave all the TAs personalized posters set to the format of the Aidyn Chronicles, a game by Chris Klug (the director of the program) that was shown to the students.


One of my mentees, Gilbert Fan, was a soft-spoken, kind individual who always seemed to see the best in people, was always bringing his teams together, and believes if we do something or make something and it helps even one person, then we can be happy.  In his own way, he inspired me.

Which was good.  I felt like I did the best I could as Production TA, and there are certain aspects of the job, like the interpersonal elements, that I indeed found rewarding.  But I also felt very removed from the true creative process, so going forward I will be prioritizing my narrative and design skills, as these are closer to where I feel the most at home.

Here’s to a great fall semester.


A Game That Can Actually Make the World a Better Place

As we close on the spring semester of 2018, I am left wondering what will happen with the discussion-based board game, Kairos, that my team and I spent the last 16 weeks creating.  Our prompt was simple: help translate Theater of War’s stage performance reading + discussion model into a more accessible and all-reaching medium (more about the game can be read here).  Through this prompt I think we managed to create the framework for something very special.

Difficult conversations (about PTSD, mental illness, death, etc.) are hard to discuss about to begin with, but maybe even more difficult to discuss with those close to us.  In an open, spacious performance room (like the kind Theater of War does it’s readings in), there is a sense of warm anonymity – one could in theory, pour their soul out into the room and help, as Bryan Doerries quotes, “purify negative emotions” and then leave and continue life.  With those close to us, talking about these difficult things will be remembered forever by these people, which makes it scarier, but also potentially more rewarding.  The potential for help in this setting is huge.

Is our game a little rough in some places?  Sure.  The questions will probably always need tweaking, and timer mechanic, while much improved from its inception, still could be worked on.

But the framework is there.  If not Women of Trachis, then any other meaningful piece of art.  Shakespeare?  Sure.  Poe?  Why not.  If a piece of art or a story carries difficult, yet universal, themes that have the potential to help people feel less alone, it can be used in Kairos if further adaptations are made.  Want to have a difficult conversation with a family member, but need to be discussing it through these characters in a structured space?  Kairos can do that.

It is said so often that “this or that” will make the world a better place, but Kairos actually can.  If people give it a chance and the game undergoes further work to perfect some of the way the content is used, it can actually help a lot of people.  The human condition, that of struggling with our emotions and often doing so alone, is universal.  All we need is a little help to realize that we don’t have to struggle alone.

We don’t know where Kairos will end up, or whether Theater of War will market it themselves.  With all of us going onto different projects after this, there won’t be time to perfect it ourselves, at least for a little while.  But at the very least, we don’t want Kairos to drift away.  We’ve worked too hard and its potential is too great.

Many thanks to the team I worked with.  It was filled with some of the most caring, passionate, and dedicate people one might have the pleasure of working with.  The game is what it is because we all genuinely cared about the prompt we were working with.  I’m gonna miss working you all a lot.

The West Coast

Early this month, I spent a week on West Coast, visiting some pretty incredible companies (and thus fulfilling some childhood dreams) and taking in the majestic aesthetics of LA and San Francisco. There is a sense of wonder when you walk around the colors of Disneyland or the tranquil peace of the San Francisco Bay. We should all be making an effort to appreciate nature when it is around us.

But more than that, I’ve spent the time surrounded by amazing people.

An alumnus I spoke to in San Francisco said that the friends he met at the ETC are people that will be friends for life. And I surely hope that that holds true for us. Being around y’all gives me a sense of peace and hope. More than anything, I like to think that we all feel alive when we’re around each other.

This group is special. Here’s to a wonderful week and to a wonderful future. Thank you, ETC Class of 2019!