video games

Adventures in Flatland: PSVR and Me

It feels like the last three months or so has been nothing but news about virtual reality finally becoming actual reality. First the Oculus Rift finally shipped (if you launch a piece of hardware but don't actually fulfill any orders, does it make a sound?), then the HTC Vive released, followed by Sony's E3 keynote which made it clear they're all in on VR as well. I've been admittedly down on VR for a long time, personally. Part of it is limited experience - I tried an Oculus dev kit at Boston FIG back in September, but it didn't really do anything for me. In fairness, the software I was trying wasn't particularly exciting, and the headset kept nudging my glasses enough to break the immersion. Even beyond that, though, it feels like VR is a promise that's been made for as long as I've been aware of technology.

I remember first looking at colleges in Boston in the mid-90s and coming across an internet cafe called CyberSmith that had Dactyl Nightmare set up in the foyer. I didn't try it then, but I desperately wanted to. Obviously, that wasn't to the level of what we have today, but it's been two decades since I was first confronted with the possibility of strapping goggles onto my face and entering another world, and the closest that I've gotten until now is the 3DS.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

This was cutting edge VR technology in 1995.

So after hearing all the hype and the stories of wonder and magic, it was announced that Sony would be conducting demos of Playstation VR at Best Buy and Gamestop following E3. I decided it was time to give VR a fair test on hardware that was intended to be released to the public. So I got in the car and drove to a Best Buy(!) in Worcester(!!) to finally experience the future for myself.

I'll say, in terms of product demonstrations conducted at Best Buy, this was one of the better ones I've experienced. I've been to Nintendo's collaborations with Best Buy to demo Super Smash Bros and Super Mario Maker, and those ranged from slow to utter fiasco, with long lines snaking around the store, a single hardware station that needed to be rebooted, and longer than necessary demo periods. This demo had a reasonable line that moved fairly consistently, with a Sony employee who knew the technology well, the demos were ready to go ahead of the start time, and he made sure to wipe down all the equipment in between each demonstration.

The excitement to try the unit was palpable from the few people in line ahead of me. The two people immediately in front of me had driven from Albany to Worcester just to try PSVR, and filmed each other on their phones as they played. From chatting with them in line, I learned that they had apparently made similar treks for Oculus and Vive demos. I was honestly starting to believe the longer I waited in line, watching the 2D representation of what the demo participants were playing on the TV in front of them.

There were a handful of game demos on hand, including Battlezone (a tank sim), SuperHyperCube (a puzzle game), and soccer and ocean diving simulations, but the only game anyone chose to play (myself included) was Eve: Valkyrie, which is a space combat game in the vein of the classic X-Wing games. As I waited in line, I saw the cadence of the demo repeatedly: The headset was put on and calibrated, the participant looked around the cockpit, then launched into space and chased enemy starships for about three minutes until the glass of the cockpit cracked and the screen faded to black, indicating that the demo period had ended. Everyone who tried it seemed to be impressed afterward; my new two friends in line in particular were especially blown away. Finally, it was my turn. I put on the headset, had it adjusted for blurriness, and, well...

I wasn't really impressed.

The game did everything as advertised. It definitely presented me the world that I was seeing on the television in front of me, and I was able to look around at any angle freely, and there was depth there. The problem was, I couldn't get past the fact that I could still see the pixels. Like, really see the pixels. Some of the text on the HUD was hard to read at times. And I couldn't really shake the feeling that what I was seeing wasn't as much real as it was projected on a dome in front of me. As the game ramped up in intensity, I started to feel my stomach lurching a bit. It wasn't bad enough that I wanted out; it wasn't even really as bad as a tame rollercoaster like Big Thunder Mountain Railroadat Disney World. The feeling was noticeable and uncomfortable, though, and it was one more thing to take me out of the suspension of disbelief.

Not quite my reaction.

Not quite my reaction.

Really, what struck me when the demo ended was that it felt like that five minutes was enough for me; I didn't want to go back for more. It felt, at least to me, like PSVR wasn't quite there yet to create that illusion of reality that's enough to get you to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in another world. It's entirely possible this has something to do with me and my ability to perceive VR, though; my experience didn't seem to be the norm (unless the people in front of me were being exceptionally polite) and I've heard from others since that they were really impressed by the technology. In fact, my experience seems so out of line with what others have reported that I've even questioned if I did the demo "the right way". I can only trust my own experience, though, and based on that, I'll probably be saving my $400 come October.

I think what it comes down to is that VR ultimately asks a lot more than any other gaming technology (or technology in general) of the people investing in it. It asks a considerable amount of money, sure; you're looking at minimum $400 for the headset plus whatever PC or PS4 hardware and peripherals that you may not already own just to be able to power it up. More than that, though, it asks you to cut yourself off from the outside world to experience it. You can't share these experiences with other people in the room in real time, nor can you experience VR passively or while multitasking; it demands your full attention to the exclusion of literally everything and everyone else, and that can be difficult to find time to provide. Putting that headset on effectively says to everyone else in the household, "I'm cutting myself off from everything else in the world, you included." I'm already well aware of how much we do that with screens that we hold in our hands that I'm not sure if I'm ready to take that to the level of introducing a sensory deprivation helmet into the family, especially when cost and technical limitations limit one to a single headset.

The biggest thing VR asks for, though is a considerable amount of faith that the content is going to continue to come. I still remember both the Wii and Kinect launches and how blown away we all were by the games that were available at launch and the different experiences they enabled; I also remember how quickly those streams of content dried up in the year or two following those launches. Assuming VR catches on like the common wisdom says it will, investing in VR as a whole may not be a gamble, but investing in any individual VR rig could very well be. The current landscape looks like VHS/Betamax or Blu-Ray/HD-DVD all over again, only with three major players instead of two, and that's an incredibly costly investment in a platform that could very well lose out in the marketplace as technology converges.

So ultimately I'm not ready to make that leap yet. Based on my experience with PSVR, I'm not convinced that virtual reality is at the point where I'm ready to jump in head first. Maybe trying the Vive will convince me. Maybe the technology just needs to come down in price some more. Maybe my eyes or my brain just don't work the way they need to for VR to ever work for me, and I'm just going to be stuck playing flat games for the rest of my life. It's hard to say right now. All I know is that I've seen what Hearthstone looks like in VR, and I'm OK with playing it on a flat screen for a while longer if that's what's meant to be.

Teaching Math With Hearthstone

Hearthstone's become a family activity in my house over the last couple of months. I wrote for Pixelkin about the benefits of justifying my addiction, er, sharing my hobby with my daughter.

My oldest daughter is in third grade, and she does Kumon worksheets for math enrichment every day. It’s clearly helping, because she’s doing two- and three-digit multiplication, but it can be a battle at times. We try to explain how important math will be to her, but the age-old challenge is showing how a list of equations will translate into a useful life skill. We tried a number of edutainment games, but nothing seemed to stick, until one day the answer came from an unlikely source: Hearthstone.

Making Magic Happen: How CCGs Helped Manage the ADD I Didn't Know I Had

I'm on a roll,

I'm on a roll to success

I feel my luck could change

             - Radiohead, "Lucky"

I'm playing one of my first games of Hearthstone since discovering a recipe for the so-called "Doctor Draw" deck that I'm now using. I've been playing Hearthstone for a few weeks since rediscovering it after they added iPhone support, but this is the first time that I've sought out advice for deck building online. This is a Priest deck; the Priest class revolves around healing and board control, and this particular deck features a card called the Northshire Cleric, which allows its owner to draw an extra card every time a minion is healed. Late in the game, after withstanding an early rush from my opponent, I play Holy Nova, which damages all of their minions and heals all of mine. This clears their side of the board and gives me four extra cards, one for each minion of mine that was damaged at the time. As my hand filled and it became clear that I had the match well in hand, I suddenly felt a rush I hadn't felt in a long, long time. And it felt really good.

My high school gaming experience was all about two types of games: Fighting games and card games. I didn't get an NES until I was 11, and then not until 1990, very late in that system's life cycle. The Super NES came out almost immediately afterward, and that was a non-starter, as far as my parents' willingness to buy one was concerned. I had wanted the NES, I had begged and pleaded for nothing but the NES for five years, and so the NES (and the Game Gear that I got for my Bar Mitzvah, because I was swayed by pretty colors to make the terrible decision to not get a Game Boy) would have to do. The NES would be the last console I'd get until my wife-to-be and I would pool our money in college one summer and get the N64 that would be our first joint possession of many. I had a PC, but most of what I had were Sierra games and Doom, neither of which I was ever able to get the handle of to the point where I could really enjoy them.

This means I missed out on a lot of important games that I had to catch up with later. For some things, this was no big deal; I've since played through Super Mario World and A Link to the Past, and I recently finished Super Metroid for the first time thanks to the virtual console on the Wii U. However, the one game that I was never able to catch up on was Street Fighter II. That's not to say I've never played the game; of course I have, but there's a difference between playing Street Fighter II once in a while at a friend's house or in the arcade and having ready access to it. I could play Street Fighter but I could never really get good at it; that takes the kind of time and obsessiveness that you really only can get as a kid or a teen, the same kind of drive and ability to learn that let me get good enough at NES games to get to the very last stage of Battletoads, past the speeders and the giant snake levels.

There are different levels of play in a fighting game. Anyone can just pick up and play, hit random buttons, and hope to get lucky once in a while. That was the level I was always stuck at, where I was a world class button masher but could never really get to the next tier of play. What happens once you actually learn a fighting game, when you get to the point where you're not just pressing buttons randomly, but you know what each button does for the character you chose and when each button is to be pressed, is that magic starts to happen. All of a sudden you can go from randomly hitting and getting hit to being able to counterattack reliably, and even execute combos that your opponent can't answer. In other words, at some point, the game seems to slow down for you. This is the level I always wanted to get to in Street Fighter, and it remained a constant frustration that I couldn't, no matter how hard I tried. It could be that my reflexes were never fast enough, or I never played with the right people who could teach me what I was missing, or I just missed my window of opportunity to learn how to play those games correctly. Maybe it was all three. Whatever it was, the game never slowed down for me. No fighting game has.

I had very few friends in high school, which is something that should come as no surprise in any retrospective that revolves around video games in the 90s. Up through 8th grade, I was in a Jewish day school that dwindled to a graduating class of twelve; everyone more or less at least tolerated each other because there wasn't much choice otherwise. I moved to the public high school in 9th grade, which was considerably larger. Once I went from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a giant pond, I needed to learn how to swim very quickly, and I never really did. I was either lucky or smart enough to stay out of the line of fire of the bullies, for the most part; I never got physically beaten up, though the threat was always there, that one wrong move would lead to Beatdown City. I mostly kept to myself, kept my head down, and stayed out of trouble. I was terribly lonely a lot of the time, though.

My sophomore year, I became friends with Ryan, who would end up being one of the only real friends I'd have in the school during my time there. Being outside the generally accepted "cool" social circles, we did the only other thing there was to do as a teenager in New Jersey in the mid-90s: We went to the mall and walked around without buying anything. (When I was eventually exposed to the movie Mallrats, it felt like it was a story tangentially about my life; I actually recognized more than one of the malls they visited in that film.) Once the mall closed or we just got bored of doing what we called "the ritual" (read: a loop around the mall with obligatory stops at stores like Electronics Boutique and Spencer Gifts), we would go back to his house and play video games. Ryan had a Sega Saturn, and the only games worth playing on it that he owned were Japanese imports of X-Men vs. Street Fighter and Marvel Super Heroes vs Street Fighter. We'd play for hours, and I'd be lucky to win a match in any given evening.

I desperately wanted to get better at the game, to feel like I was good at something. I was perpetually on the honor roll, so I was good at academics, but that didn't really count for me at the time. That wasn't valued, I thought, by anyone except for college admissions officers who would eventually look at my GPA, and they were in the future. Being good academically certainly wasn't winning me any friends, because it became abundantly clear early on that, as far as the social order of high school was concerned, my intelligence was a negative trait, and I would be punished if I were to try to make it otherwise. Video games were something I felt like I could be good at, and fighting games were the only kind of game that was out at the time where I felt like I could prove that competitively. I printed out move lists from GameFAQs and studied them, to no avail. Try as I might, it just never happened.

Around the same time, I went into what would become my regular comic book store and noticed the display of Magic: The Gathering cards on the counter. This was an easier sell to my parents than an SNES or a Playstation; instead of needing a $200-$300 console, all I needed was a $12 starter deck. The math was easy, at least at first. I fell in love immediately. Before I knew it, I was a regular at the comic shop's Magic night every Sunday. That became a fixture of my high school life from that point on, and I rarely missed a week; it was the one thing I had to look forward to at the time. No matter how bad the week got, no matter how mean the kids were to me at school, I knew that as long as I could make it to Sunday night everything would be ok, at least for a little while.

What's more, I was actually good at Magic in a way that I never really could be with fighting games. Magic is a really difficult game; the basic rule book is fairly thick, and the game actually gets more complex as different cards interact in ways that the rule book doesn't always cover. That never really bothered me, though; it made sense to me as though I'd been playing the game all my life. The intricacies of the game, like how to balance a deck, how to make the most of the cards available in any given situation, and how to bait an opponent into using up defensive cards on decoys before playing important cards, came to me relatively effortlessly. The same skills that would eventually make me a good programmer also made me a good Magic player; every situation was a problem that I needed to use a set of tools to solve, and I was good at putting the pieces together on the fly. As helpless as I felt playing fighting games, that's how confident I felt when playing Magic. They both put me one on one against another person, but when playing Magic, I knew what to do and I knew how to do it. I could finally win at something.

Magic: The Gathering quickly became more than a game to me. It was an opportunity, once a week, to sit down across the table from someone and prove that I was actually good at something that mattered to my addled teenage brain. Playing Magic went from being something I did to being something I was. I had binders full of uncommon and rare cards meticulously catalogued, despite the fact that everything else I owned was perpetually in a series of piles on my bedroom floor, a dichotomy my parents pointed out frequently. (In retrospect, I either was hyperfocused on keeping the cards organized or Magic was so important to me that I was able to push past the attention issues that I didn't yet know I had to get them in order.) I found channels of Magic players on IRC and downloaded a program that simulated a card table online to be able to play practice games during the week. I spent whole evenings reading web sites on strategy and deck building. School was easy for me at the time; the real study time went to Magic, not academics.

To be clear, I wasn't ever professional level good; that kind of proficiency took a monetary commitment I was never able to make. I don't know that I even won more matches than I lost, looking back on it. I certainly didn't win enough to cover the cost of the cards I needed to buy. But I held my own in the weekly tournaments at the comic shop and the bigger tournaments that were held in the area. I even got to the quarterfinal round in a large sealed deck tournament in Boston toward the end of my freshman year of college; the challenge of beating that many opponents in a row was equalled by the challenge of trying to find a taxi out of downtown Boston at 2:30 AM after I was finally eliminated.

Eventually, though, the cost of the game caught up with me. New expansion sets came out three times a year, on average, and getting the new cards was necessary to stay competitive. My reward for getting on honor roll for a quarter was a box of booster packs, which usually ran between $100 and $150; it was like an extra birthday every time I got one of those, because I spent the whole day opening presents. Once I was in college and on a limited budget, though, the idea of spending that much money to just be able to keep playing became too much. I moved over to sealed deck for a while, but that was never as fulfilling as being able to put together a deck I knew like the back of my hand. After my freshman year of college, I gave Magic up cold turkey one day and didn't look back.

Ultimately, by then I didn't need Magic anymore. When I got to college I found a supportive environment full of people who accepted me as I was, so I didn't feel the need to prove my worth constantly, either to myself or others. A few months after I gave up Magic I met the woman who would eventually become my wife. Magic wasn't a lifeline to get me through the week anymore. It became just another game, and an expensive one at that, so when I closed up the boxes full of decks for good I didn't feel like I needed to open them back up again.

One of the things I learned since being diagnosed with ADD is that, the later in life you're diagnosed, the more damage is done to your self esteem and confidence. What's happened to me as a result of being plagued with inconsistent attention is that I stopped believing that I could actually do the things I'm good at. In general, the expectation is that once you acquire a skill, it's something that's repeatable. Once you're sufficiently skilled at riding a bike, for instance, you're not going to suddenly not be able to ride it again, for instance. For people with ADD like me, though, failing at something you should be able to do easily does happen. I've had spells of time where I'd stare at a daunting piece of code for weeks and not be able to figure out what needed to happen next, and then one day I'd sit down, somehow trigger a bout of hyperfocus, and crank through the whole thing in an hour or two. Or I'd be able to master a really complex technique but not be able to grasp basic concepts in a related area that really aren't that complicated, but I couldn't get my brain to focus in on.

Unfortunately for me, I managed well enough as a kid to evade an ADD diagnosis. I got good grades despite rarely taking a book home to do do homework. I wasn't hyperactive or disruptive; if anything, I was the complete opposite, staying quiet and out of the way. To the people around me, when things that I was clearly capable of didn't get done, this meant I was either lazy or didn't care. I could seemingly do things when I wanted to, so when I didn't, the explanation had to be that I was blowing them off because they weren't important enough to me. The thing is, I did care about what it looked like I was blowing off a lot of the time, but I couldn't get myself to stay focused on those things long enough to get them done. It wasn't that I cared only about the things I became hyperfocused on, like Magic, but rather the things that would trigger hyperfocus were the things I started to care about more than anything else; those were the areas where I knew I could maintain my focus long enough to do what I needed to do.

The problem with hyperfocus is it's difficult to predict when it will kick in. Very often, without the benefit of hyperfocus, tasks felt daunting or impossible. What's worse is that hyperfocus would sometimes leave me high and dry in situations where it had been my saving grace before. This happened enough that I started to question whether the skills I had were really skills at all, because a skill is something that you're supposed to be able to rely on; my skills never felt reliable to me. It was almost random if I'd be able to make use of one of my skills on any given day, as though I was waiting for the right card to come to the top of my internal deck before I could use it. So if what was getting me through life wasn't skill, then the explanation is obviously that I got lucky. So if I've been getting through life on luck and not skill, what happens when that luck runs out, as luck always eventually does?

Taking this all the way to its logical conclusion has left me with a pretty severe case of impostor syndrome, for pretty much every aspect of life. I could look at everything I'd accomplished, be it honor roll in high school, or graduating college, or a performance appraisal or anything that was a proof of my accomplishments, and I wouldn't feel like I earned them, or at the very least that I didn't deserve them. I knew all the places I messed up along the way. I knew all the times that I couldn't do what I needed to do, or I could do it but couldn't will myself to do it, and felt like luck got me through. Even now, knowing what I know, and that what I've accomplished is real and maybe even more impressive because I overcame undiagnosed ADD to accomplish it, it's very easy to go back to that dark place.

I think a lot about failure these days, since it tends to affect me so strongly. Little failures can lead me to beat myself up for a while, especially when I should know better. A bad day where I see the results of several small failures at once, or one big one, can leave me in a funk for days that's very difficult to pull myself out of. I'll tell myself that I'm in over my head, or that I'm a fraud, and that people are going to find out and then everything I've gotten (not earned, never earned) over the years is going to come crashing down like a house of cards. This has gotten better since the diagnosis; I can recognize the failure for what it is and not see it as a harbinger of doom. Even now, though, it takes a lot of effort to see past the yelling voices and realize that the good outweighs the bad. As a result, I'm less likely to put myself into situations where I know I'm likely to fail a lot; I know how that can snowball and it's not good for me.

What I realize, knowing what I know now, is that what made Magic different was that failure wasn't a sign of weakness or that I wasn't good enough; it was an expected part of the game. Sure, luck got me through when I won, because luck was built in. No one wins without getting at least a bit lucky, and any loss could be dismissed by a bad starting hand or the wrong card at the top of the deck. It was the one place where I could compete on equal footing and be legitimately proud of whatever I accomplished, and when things didn't go my way, I could dust myself off and come back the next time because I knew that was just part of the game. I'm only now realizing how much I needed Magic at a time in my life where I didn't feel like I could be good at anything that was important to me.

I try to get back there sometimes, when the failures start to pile up and I need to feel like I'm good at something among everything feeling like it's falling apart. Card games have been out of the question since I gave Magic up, both because of the expense and the difficulty of getting somewhere physical to play, so I've tried what I've always seen as the next best thing, which are fighting games. I've made an attempt at playing almost every major fighting game when they've come out. I got good enough at Marvel vs Capcom 2 to be able to beat the computer on medium more often than not, but playing against another human still ended poorly for me, and I was never able to execute any more than one basic (and fairly cheap) combo with Jin. I gave Street Fighter IV and Marvel vs Capcom 3 legitimate chances when both those games came out also. Street Fighter IV in particular had a setting that allowed people to challenge you as you played single player mode. I left that on for maybe a day before it left me too demoralized to continue. I decided, based on that experience, that I was too old to be able to get good at fighting games now.

When Mortal Kombat X came out a few weeks ago, I tried one last time to see if I could ever get a fighting game to click for me. I'd been assured that the fighting system was simpler than other games, and had been tuned to be more accessible for newcomers. I got advice from one of the best fighting game players I know. ("Don't look at your fighter because you know what you're doing; look at the other player so you can react to them.") That said, I gave the story mode several hours, and while I was able to make progress, I never felt like I had any actual control over what was happening on the screen. I was right back to Ryan's room in high school, hitting buttons with no real feeling like I knew why any button should be pressed. I felt no agency over my character; I was entering commands and things happened on the screen, but those two things felt disconnected, as though the result would be the same if I wasn't manipulating the controller. The experiment ended the same as every other one had, with a sense of frustration that I'd failed at fighting games yet again.

Around the same time, Hearthstone was released for the iPhone. I'd tried Hearthstone when it was in beta; it was a fun game but it had always felt like a really stripped down, basic version of Magic to me. The rule set was drastically simplified compared to Magic, and it felt like all I was doing was lining up minions to fight other minions; there didn't seem to be any deep strategy there to appeal to me. Add to that a client that was slow to load on my Mac, and I quickly forgot about it until I decided to give the game another try on my phone. Once I could load up a game instantly, wherever I was, and I gave it a legit chance, the depth of Hearthstone became apparent to me. What's more, being free to play, I could get into it casually without going down the booster pack treadmill again. I'd lose some games to people who had spent enough money to have a full set of Legendary cards, of course, but that's just going to happen. And I already knew all too well that just having good cards won't win you matches if you don't know how and when to use them.

So I started playing again, taking advantage of the daily quests to maximize my gold to get better cards, and slowly I got better. The first month that I played Ranked mode, it took me a few days to get from rank 25 to rank 20, where you earn a special card back for that month's campaign. The next month, it took me a day. I learned how each of the classes plays, and figured out which ones suit my play style (priest, warlock, druid) and which don't (warrior, mage, hunter). I learned how to build a deck and how to make the cards work together. I learned how to be patient and not to panic from an early game beatdown. I got to the point where I could go into any match expecting to win, and I could brush off a loss and go right back in without feeling like I wasn't really as good as I thought I was.

I didn't realize that I still needed that reassurance, but some days, despite having the diagnosis and knowing my skill is real, I still do. For ten minutes, even if everything else feels like it's going to pieces, I can remind myself that I am as good as I think I'm supposed to be, both in and out of the game. That it's ok to stumble, as long as I go right back in and try to do better the next time. That even a string of failures doesn't mean that the next win can't be a match away. That I don't have to win every time, as long as I can win sometimes, and I know that I'm good enough to win when things go my way. That just because my cards didn't come the right way once doesn't mean my cards aren't good enough to ever win again.

All I have to do is shuffle the deck, draw another starting hand, and remember that I'm as good as I'm willing to let myself be. That's what I needed all along.

Fresh Ink

Splatoon’s unorthodox demo finally was released this past weekend, giving us an chance to get our hands on Nintendo’s first major new IP since they stopped putting the word Wii in front of any noun they could find. What surprised me, among the generally positive reactions to the game, is an undercurrent of opinion that Splatoon is dead on arrival. One article even went so far as to suggest that Nintendo shut the whole thing down and turn it into a free-to-play affair, because it’s doomed at a $60 price point. This doesn’t surprise me, of course, because the simple reason for all of this doom and gloom is that it’s very hard to see the appeal of a game that is not for you, and Splatoon is a game very specifically not for the typical online multiplayer shooter fan. What’s more, that’s the game’s biggest strength, not its weakness.

There are two major complaints about Splatoon’s gameplay, from what I’ve read, and they both tend to center around the perspective of the hardcore gamer without consideration for how people who haven’t reached level 30 in Destiny might approach a multiplayer shooter. [Update: John Siracusa correctly pointed out that the level cap in Destiny is 32, not 30.] One is the motion control; the tutorial in the Splatoon demo requires you use the Wii U Gamepad to look around, and only uses the right stick for lateral view control. This is understandably jarring to anyone who’s played any first or third person perspective games on a console before; I certainly turned it off immediately and went back to using the dual sticks as I was accustomed to once the tutorial was over. This isn’t necessarily a gimmick to justify the use of the Gamepad, however. I gave the demo over to my oldest daughter, who is becoming fairly adept at games in her own right but hasn’t yet had any experience with a game like this aside from a brief excursion with Disney Infinity, which didn’t hold her interest long enough to warrant learning to control a 3D camera.

What I noticed is that she spent the entire time looking straight down and didn’t know how to look where she was going with the motion controls turned off. She started to figure it out, but not really. It hadn’t occurred to me to turn the motion controls on for her during the limited time allotted for the demo, but I think it could actually be more intuitive for people who are not used to playing this kind of game. Even games like Portal 2, which are generally very inclusive for people who aren’t adeptly skilled at games, have a high learning curve for new players because the camera control is unintuitive; using the gamepad in this way, to literally move the window on the gamepad to where you want to look, could help a lot of people who have struggled to play this sort of game before.

The other big complaint from hardcore gamers about Splatoon is the lack of voice chat. For most people not deep into that culture, the lack of voice chat isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I’ve heard horror stories of parents who took their grade schoolers online in Plants vs Zombies Garden Warfare and got a swift education in foul language. Having played the demo, I can safely state that team chat really isn’t necessary to be successful (especially since both teams are at equal disadvantage), and it’s reassuring as a parent to not have to worry about who’s on the other mics hooked up to the game. That’s not to mention a lot of the gatekeeping and harassment that happens over voice chat to women who play online multiplayer. If one is privileged enough to not ever have to experience that, not having voice chat is a flaw, but it’s a relief to many others who do have to endure that in other games.

Because this game doesn’t include the checklist of features that are assumed to be necessary to have a successful online multiplayer game, the storyline in the hardcore gaming community is that this game will struggle to sell. These arguments tend to reference Sin and Punishment and Bayonetta 2, those games being the last shooter type games that Nintendo has attempted. My feeling is the complete opposite. Honestly, I’d be concerned if Nintendo was trying to court that type of player, and skewed Splatoon toward those types of preferences. There’s a reason that Activision doesn’t port Call Of Duty games over to the Wii U anymore; that’s not the type of game that sells on the Wii U, and it would be a mistake for Nintendo to try to make something for that audience that frankly isn’t really there. It’s actually reassuring that Nintendo is willing to throw out some of the mainstay features of online shooters if they don’t serve the game they’re trying to make.

The game that Nintendo is trying to make, by the way, is rated E10. That’s important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that it dictates who the audience of the game really is. It’s quickly reaching the point where you can count on your fingers how many major console releases are rated below T; the number drops even more dramatically when you remove sports games and toys-to-life games, especially given that even Lego games are moving into the toys to life realm with the upcoming Lego Dimensions. That’s not to say that Splatoon is a game that’s made specifically for kids, because it’s not by any stretch, but it is a game that’s built so that kids can play it. The rating is not part of the marketing message, to be sure, but publishers know what kinds of content will lead to which ratings and absolutely tailor that based on who they want their audience to be.

You can see that not only in the content of Splatoon but in how and where Nintendo is advertising it. Many AAA releases advertise on prime time network television or during sporting events because that’s where they think their audiences are; I’ve seen plenty of AAA game ads during NFL games, for instance. The other day, while watching Teen Titans Go, one of my daughters came over and told me very excitedly that she saw the game I was playing that morning on Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network is the most influential network in all major kid demographics right now, and by choosing to spend their ad dollars there, Nintendo is making a big statement about who they want to buy their game. It’s a good bet, too; I’ve spoken at length on Isometric about the lack of console games that families can play together without having to worry about exposing my kids to something they aren’t ready to see. Granted, most parents aren’t as dialed into upcoming game releases as I am, but rest assured that kids can be relentless when they see something that appeals to them advertised on shows they’re watching. That alone can move copies, and for some households, it may even sell consoles now that the rest of the software available is fairly substantial.

Ultimately, what defined Nintendo’s approach to the last console generation was a belief that there were people who wanted to play games who weren’t being served by the console market as it was. They were right, almost to a fault; there was such a market out there, and those people did want to play games, but they weren’t looking for the kinds of involved experiences that a TV-based console dictated. Those new players wanted gaming in smaller chunks, to pass five or ten minutes waiting in line, not hour long sessions in their living rooms. So while the Wii appealed to them initially, once the fad of Wii Sports wound down, they weren’t interested in buying new games to replace it, and they certainly weren’t willing to spend another $300 on another console that was still tied to their living room TV when they had a device in their pocket that served that need just fine. Worse, since Nintendo had mostly alienated the types of consumers who were still interested in buying a new console by focusing on experiences like Wii Fit and Wii Music at the expense of more traditional games, it took them a long time to win back that audience’s trust.

What’s shaping up to define Nintendo in the current console generation is a subtler variation on the same theme. While the games being made for the Xbox One and PS4 skew further and further in the direction of what they believe their audience (read: hardcore gamers) want, Nintendo is clearly betting that there is a wider audience that is already inclined to play console games but is not able to find anything that’s outside of the games that have been approved by the hardcore gaming community. While Mario Kart and Super Smash Bros were more or less expected to be what they are based on the two series’ predecessors, just by virtue of having none of the baggage of an existing franchise, Splatoon shows what Nintendo wants to make now: Games accessible to players of multiple skill levels and ages, with an emphasis on fun over competitiveness. Nintendo appears to have accepted that they’ve lost the opportunity to win over people who have never considered themselves gamers before to the mobile devices those consumers already own, and they’ve sold all the consoles that they’re going to be able to sell to anyone who’s also inclined to play Bloodborne, because no one’s expecting a truly “hardcore” experience on the Wii U anymore. To bet that there’s a middle between those two extremes, full of groups of people who are subtly or not so subtly being told that the games being made are Not For Them, seems like a really smart move, and in line with the blue ocean strategy that carried them through the Wii years.

Will it work? That remains to be seen. Nintendo’s a company that’s been known to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory more than once in the past. That said, the game, based on the demo, is good, and Nintendo appears to know who they need to market toward, so Splatoon has every chance to succeed. If you’ve looked at the current landscape of console releases and found yourself frustrated, even if you have no interest in the game itself, it’s worth keeping track of how Splatoon is received in the marketplace. Purely in terms of determining what kinds of games get made for the rest of this console generation, Splatoon could easily be the most important game released this year.


I’ve been spending some time this week trying to put together a list of my favorite games of the year, both for Isometric and just for my own purposes. As I’m doing that, I’m realizing that I’m kind of putting off what I really need to talk about, which is what has been my game of the year for most of the year, and may still be, which is Wolfenstein: The New Order. I go back-and-forth with this, because I realize that as far as the gameplay is concerned, Wolfenstein is nothing special. It’s a standard first person shooter, which is actually kind of bucking a trend by going back to the old school first person shooter mechanics, with a numerical health bar that doesn’t regenerate when you let your shields charge up after not taking it for a period of time. In fact, I felt like some of the boss battles were even borderline unfair at times, and the difficulty curve spiked a little bit too much for my liking. But my reasons for feeling so strongly about Wolfenstein really have nothing to do with the mechanics, and are almost in spite of them to some degree, because I don’t really like first person shooter games as a rule. In fact, I love this game despite the fact that it’s a first person shooter, not because of it.

No, the reason I decided to take a chance on Wolfenstein was an article that I had read right before the game came out that had implied that the main character, BJ Blazkowicz, was Jewish. It turns out that if that is the case, it was only hinted at in the design documents, and that detail never actually made it into the game. However, what actually did make it into the team was a far better depiction of Judaism than I have ever seen in the 30 years that I have been playing video games, and, as a Jew, this game touched me in a way that no other game I can think of.

Before I get into the specifics of Wolfenstein, I think a little bit of background of what it’s like to be a consumer of games in particular, and of media in general, as a Jew, is in order. The general caricature of a Jew in media is the nerd, or the nebbishy guy who is socially awkward, and is generally not portrayed in a great life. There are some exceptions, of course; Seinfeld is a big one that did a really great job of depicting what it’s like to actually be a modern Jew in America, which is to say that it’s just like being anybody else in American society most of the time, with a few differences here and there. Typically, though, when there’s a Jewish person in media, it’s as the butt of the joke or the wimpy, helpless guy, and not someone who’s a strong character or strong because of their Judaism. (A perfect example right now is the character of Howard on The Big Bang Theory; even among the four main characters he’s the only one who lives with his mother, and anything Jewish is typically just pointed out as one more reason why he’s weird. In fact, in the early seasons he was portrayed as outright creepy, as opposed to just goofy and socially awkward like the other three main characters.)

However bad this is in media in general, it’s way, way worse in games. You can literally count the number of Jewish characters included across the history of video games on two hands, and they almost always are cast as negative stereotypes. Grand Theft Auto has the Jewish Mafia, for instance. South Park: The Stick of Truth has a playable class called simply “Jew”, with powers like the Sling of David, an attack dreidel and something called the Circum-scythe, just to give an idea of the level of sophistication that you’d expect from a South Park game. Some Jewish people can play that game and find it empowering, but I’m not one of them. This is, of course, not including some really terrible ideas that thankfully never saw the light of day.

And even when games try to do it right they tend to fall flat. The canonical “Jewish game” is called The Shivah. It’s a point and click murder mystery from 2006, and the main character is a rabbi. But it ultimately tries too hard; the cursor is literally a Jewish star, for crying out loud. I’ve tried to play it, but it didn’t speak to me, and I doubt I could give it to one of my non-Jewish friends and have it say something to them because that really isn’t my experience as a reform/secular Jew. In fact, when my wife saw the interface as I tried to play it, all she could say was, “Really?!” as she rolled her eyes.

So really, I’d given up on having a Jewish character in a game that I could relate to. I figured it just wasn’t going to happen, and I just kind of made my peace with that. Religion tends not to come up in games to begin with for good reason, so I just kind of accepted that it was something that was going to be a joke at best and leave it to the domain of the white whale. In any event, games have had a hard enough time with female characters, especially protagonists, and women make up more than 50% of population; what chance does a group with a tiny fraction of that level of representation in society have?

Warning: major spoilers for Wolfenstein: The New Order lie ahead. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to see those before you play the game, go ahead and do that and then come back to this post when you’re done.

Then came Wolfenstein: The New Order. As some background, the game takes place in an alternate history circa 1960, after the Allies lost World War II to the Nazis. Blazkowicz was part of a raid on a Nazi stronghold, but was captured and tortured to the point where he was mentally incapacitated and placed into an asylum where he lives out the next fifteen years in a vegetative state. He wakes up as the Nazis are shutting down the asylum despite his doctors’ resistance, and escapes with the nurse who was caring for him. He eventually links up with the tiny remains of the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany and starts working to get revenge. From that perspective it’s a fairly standard bro shooter, though they do a good job of making the characters feel like real people and not just vessels for guns.

Where things get interesting, though, is about halfway through the game where they find a flaw in the concrete-like material that the Nazis have used to build up all of their fortresses since winning the war. They track down an engineer named Set Roth who has the knowledge to be able to exploit the flaws in the Nazis’ technology and hopefully bring the regime down with it. However, Roth is Jewish, which means that Blazkowicz will need to infiltrate a concentration camp in order to rescue him.

This is the point where I got really nervous. First person shooters are not typically known for their sensitive treatment of material like the Holocaust in general and concentration camps in particular. That said, Wolfenstein actually did a good job of being respectful of the location and what it means, and it showed the terrible conditions within without going overboard for the sake of going overboard. (There are scenes with furnaces used to incinerate bodies elsewhere in the game, I should note, but never within the concentration camp scene.) In fact, I welled up a bit as Blazkowicz, upon entering the camp, was subjected to receiving the infamous tattoo that all Jews were branded with during the Holocaust. [Update: It’s been pointed out to me that tattooing only happened at Auschwitz, and this concentration camp was located in Croatia. The scene was still powerful despite the historical inaccuracy, though.]

What was even more impressive than the treatment of the concentration camp was the character of Roth himself, though. Rather than being the shy and nebbishy character I’ve come to expect, Roth is whip smart and tough as nails. This is also the first time I can remember ever hearing Hebrew or Yiddush spoken, and spoken correctly, in a video game. Roth welcomes Blazkowicz back from one of his missions to take down the camp with “Yasher Koach”, which is a traditional Hebrew phrase of congratulations that’s usually used after someone receives an honor during services at the synagogue.

A tiny detail that really showed me that the developers cared about portraying Roth correctly as a Jew was that he speaks Hebrew with an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) accent. This is something I grew up hearing from older people in the synagogues I belong to but which isn’t taught anymore; when I learned Hebrew I was taught with the modern accent that Israeli Hebrew is spoken in. For someone who lived in Eastern Europe at that time, though, it was completely appropriate for Roth to speak with that accent and it actually surprised me that they paid attention to the degree that they picked up the correct accent for that character.

The kicker, though, is the revelation in the last third of the game that all the technology that the Nazis have used to win the war and subsequently rule the world was stolen from an ancient Jewish mystical society called Da’at Yichud, of which Roth is one of the last surviving members. This society has cracked the code of science and gotten access to technology hundreds of years ahead of its time; while stealing this technology is what gave the Nazis the edge, it’s Roth and Da’at Yichud’s remaining technology that is instrumental in turning the tide and winning the war. This simple plot decision takes the Jews in this story from being the victim and lets them be the hero, albeit indirectly. It let me be the hero in a way I’ve never felt before. And it did it all without ever addressing Blazkowicz’s background.

Ultimately, my issue isn’t a lack of Jewish representation in games; I may be Jewish, but I’m also a straight white male, so it’s not like I can’t find representation in gaming easily enough. My issue is that when games attempt to include Jewish characters they often do it so poorly that I end up wishing they hadn’t tried in the first place. Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of the first (possibly the only) game I’ve played that took the time to include a Jewish character and elements of Judiasm as a whole without devolving into lazy, offensive stereotypes, and that’s something that I truly appreciate. Wolfenstein: The New Order may not be the best game to come out this year, but it will always have a special place in my heart for taking my religion and treating it with respect where it so often is either ignored or outright ridiculed.

That’s something to say yasher koach to.