Category: Blog

RIP SQ.vg

SecondQuest.vg was created as the website arm of the podcast Cartridge Blowers, hosted by Richard Goodness and Eric Brasure.

Since early 2012, it has functioned as the homepage for the videogame writing of Richard Goodness.

Due to a change in circumstances, SecondQuest.vg will no longer be updated.

Thank you.

Porpentine vs. Ethics, Part 3

On Friday, Porpentine’s piece disappeared and the re-edited version appeared on her site. (For those of you who are coming in late, my other articles on the subject are here and here.) As of the time of this writing–about 2 PM EST on Monday the 13th of May–no explanation has appeared on either her site nor on re/Action. My articles, which focused on the ethical breaches and the poor quality of Porpentine’s work have been interpreted to be a vicious personal attack. Any actual criticisms or points I’ve made were ignored. At no point did I ask for her article to be removed, nor did I make any critique of the content of the article in question beyond her edits. Any decision to remove the article was made between her and the staff of re/Action.

I have not seen anyone defending her actions at stealthily editing her article in order to recharacterize herself. To claim that this is not a problem is ridiculous, and there’s a reason I don’t think we’ve seen anybody defending her ethical breach. I have not seen her attempt to justify the stealth change–while she has explained her reasons behind making the edit, that’s not the issue.

I am curious as to why she made that edit without disclosing it on re/Action.

One Thought On re/Action’s Response To “One Thought On Porpentine’s Revisions to ’7 Thoughts on Women in Games’”

Since writing this piece this morning, the original article has been restored. Managing editor Andrea Shubert has posted an apology on her Twitter, as has EIC Mattie Brice. As of the time of this writing, Porpentine has not responded, although she’s made several clever arty tweets since.

Brice wrote the following tweet as explanation:

Hi, seeing that @reActionZine isn’t a funded venture with many people staffing it, no one has been awake to deal with what’s brought up.

This brings up a very interesting question: If none of the editorial staff was awake, how were the changes made?

One Thought On Porpentine’s Revisions to “7 Thoughts on Women in Games”

Ah, Porpentine, the little scamp. Destroy everything. Logic is bullshit. Fuck you, don’t speak for me. Ah, re/Action Zine, where you’re gonna go if you want to listen to a few Zinesters attempting to make us give a shit about their Problems.

We’re in the early stages of the Criticism Wars being open now, and I love that Porpentine is being called on her shit.

Here’s the story:

Work Harder, Hard Worker

I can’t open up Steam without getting assaulted by a screaming match between Cart Life and Cargo Commander. The two games live next door to each other in my library, and Braid, across the street, always keeps its window open to overhear. Later The Real Texas and A Valley Without Wind will come over for coffee and sotto voce gossip.

Both games could be played by Patty Duke in different wigs and slightly altered speech patterns. One’s got pixel art; one’s cartoony! One’s black and white; one is colorful! One features interactions between characters; one leaves you isolated and alone! One’s got a chiptune soundtrack; one features a single country song on repeat! One gives you a choice of three characters; one has a single avatar! One takes place over a finite period of time; one stretches endlessly! Pitch it to USA, Characters Welcome: Cart Life and Cargo Commander are the original Odd Couple.

But at the end of the day, the two of them like having each other around. They may fight, and they may say ugly things, and they may hurt each other, but sooner or later, schmaltzy music is going to play and they’re going to express their appreciation for each other. They’re reaching towards the same goals: Both Cart Life and Cargo Commander take almost opposite tactics to come to the same conclusions the ways in which we can escape drudgery and transcend the loneliness of existence.

Cart Life’s designer Richard Hofmeier subtitles Cart Life, simply, “A Retail Simulation for Windows”. Much ink has been spilled on whether or not that descriptor is accurate. In fact, this was much of the focus of Nick Fortugno’s Well Played talk at IndieCade East this year. Fortugno stated that the “retail simulation” label was a “dodge”–perhaps suggesting that it was simply latching onto the genre’s popularity? It’s true that Cart Life doesn’t really fit the “retail simulation” genre–one which appears to contain games as disparate as Fortugno’s own Diner Dash and other, older games like Lemonade Stand and Dope Wars–but, in a way, that’s exactly the point.

Line up every game that’s considered a “retail simulation”; five minutes with Cart Life will demonstrate that it’s the clear outlier. Its almost stubborn commitment to its own vision makes one almost wonder if the subtitle is less a sign that Cart Life wishes to fit into a certain genre and more a suggestion, by Hofmeier, that other games in the genre are shallow. Consider Diner Dash‘s story: Flo, a cute and perky businesswoman who decides to leave the rat race in order to fulfill her dream of owning a restaurant; it’s a lot of hard work, of course, but she’s not afraid to roll up her sleeves; she’s totally got this. Hell, Diner Dash is fun–it’s concerned with being a light casual puzzle game. Cart Life‘s minigames are optimized to be just uncomfortable enough that it’s never painful, but it’s very…tedious. At one point, Fortugno, smiling smugly, flashed a slide with the legend “Drudgery != fun”. The few people who have admitted to enjoying Cart Life‘s minigames themselves usually admit that they’re getting a perverse pleasure from it; I admit that my own love of Mass Effect 2‘s mining comes from a desire to be one of those weird people who likes Mass Effect 2‘s mining. Cart Life isn’t fun.

What Cart Life does is to take a look at Diner Dash and Lemonade Stand and find that genre is normally either so abstracted or rose-colored as to seem almost inhuman. Hofmeier creates a retail simulation which isn’t exactly pleasant to play; to that he has grafted an adventure game. And by giving the worker a distinct identity–family relationships, employment history, fears, etc.–the economics of the business intersect with the economics of life. One character smokes cigarettes in order to stave off hunger so he can concentrate enough to work a little bit longer in order to sell more newspapers so he doesn’t waste any money on unsold stock in order to increase his profits in order to afford cigarettes to calm his addiction for just a little while. The retail simulation, Hofmeier suggests, is incomplete: Your Lemonade Stander gets a hot meal from Mom in between turns; your Dope Warrior doesn’t have a dropping meter showing his intoxication level. Life in retail, when you get to it, is a nexus of needs and addictions and cost, and cart life leaves one fried and hollow.

And yet, the characters in Cart Life are able to attain a kind of dignity through their work. Success at the cart business represents something more for each character. For Melanie, it’s proof of independence and adulthood. For Andrus, it’s a new start in a new country. For Vinny, it’s a way to serve humanity in whatever way he can. Failure at their goals means failure at their dreams–at their lives. And yet there really isn’t a big deal made upon succeeding in any character’s scenario. Well, that’s Life. No one’s gonna throw you a party just because you remembered to pay the rent. Cart Life is less about achieving a “happy ending” for the characters than it is about getting these people into a sustainable lifestyle–one which may not be smooth sailing, but one where they can get the bills paid on time and maybe see a movie from time to time.

Less optimistic about the value of work is Cargo Commander, designed by Maarten Brouwer and Daniel Ernst. The premise is simple enough, and very different from Cart Life: You’re presented with a series of cargo containers, containing a selection of valuables and monsters, floating through space. The levels are procedurally-generated through whatever names you choose to give them, and the game tracks high scores for friendly competition. The goal of the game eventually becomes to scour sectors until you find one of every cargo type.

None of this is particularly innovative–Cargo Commander doesn’t really add any new elements to the table, although it balances its systems very well. There’s plenty to do, and enough secrets that it stays fresh, but while the game initially appears to have a steep learning curve, its structure becomes very quickly apparent and your morning routine develops. Wake up, grab a cup of coffee–feed that caffeine addiction!–check your upgrade bench, check your email, call the first wave of containers, explore and fight and collect, call another wave of containers, repeat until death or you get a pass to go to the next sector where you wake up, grab a cup of coffee–feed that caffeine addiction!–and so on.

This is Pac Man, this is Dig Dug, this is Asteroids. For a game to present itself as an unusual job–mining, or space defense, or whatever–is fairly standard, and so Cargo Commander‘s conceit–that you have a job in deep space doing salvage–isn’t unheard of. But like Cart Life, Cargo Commander is interested in the person you’re controlling. Cart Life takes a fully-realized character and drops him into a retail simulation; Cargo Commander takes a generic game character and wonders who he is.

Cart Life doesn’t need to go out of its way to justify why its characters are becoming cart jockeys–they’re all more or less at the end of their ropes financially, and carting appears, at least at first, to be the easiest way to stay afloat. It’s rough, and the deck may be stacked against you, but you can succeed at this job, and you can thrive. Cargo Commander makes no bones about the fact that cargo commanding is one of the worst jobs ever created. It’s lonely and isolated, it’s dangerous, you’re constantly fighting the mutated corpses of former cargo commanders, the pay isn’t great and the company doesn’t care if you live or die. One can’t really picture this existence being preferable to homelessness, and so the most logical solution is that he’s supporting a wife and a child back home.

And as the game progresses, you get emails from your wife talking about what life is like back home. And she warns you against eating canned food and urges you to eat fresh fruit and vegetables–which is strange, because the only food in the game is canned. You’re in deep space. And she talks about your promotion and hopes you’re not bored at the office–which is strange, because this is as far from an office job as you can get. And she jokingly–but not really jokingly, because she worries–hopes that you’re not flirting with your secretary–which is strange, because you’re all alone with only a single country song on endless repeat for company. And she mentions that she ran into someone who works at your company at the grocery store, and he wouldn’t look her in the eye–and you know, that makes perfect sense. Because the type of man who is willing to take a dangerous, horrible job to support his family isn’t going to be able to bear them worrying about him, and so he’s told them he’s a desk jockey working far away at Cargo Corp Headquarters, desperately hoping he doesn’t get killed and that, if he ever makes it back home, he’ll do his best to hide the trauma from them.

And then you get a notice that a package has been delivered to the headquarters–because that’s where you told your family you were working at, right?–and they’re happy to forward it on to you for a small fee, and so you sell some of your hard-found cargo in order to pay the fee, because what could it possibly be?, and it finally gets there after a couple of days, and inside is a crayon drawing, of you, from your son, with the note “FOR DAD” scrawled on it. And as the game goes on, you get more notices, and the fee gets greater and greater each time, and you know what, it doesn’t really matter, and you stick them up on the wall of your ship.

And then you notice that the drawings are tied into the achievement system–that when you earn certain ones, the drawing your son gives you is related somehow to it, although since he’s been told you’re an office guy you’re in a shirt and tie and surrounded by coworkers–and you begin to earn achievements just to get these little scraps from home. And then you notice that other achievements remind you about times with your wife, and then you notice that the descriptions of some of the cargo items give you other memories–you find a “serial killer sweater” which is not unlike the awful one you wore on your first date with the woman you eventually married, a pair of sexy heels that remind you of your honeymoon–and it becomes clear that this character views everything in terms of the wife he misses, the son he cannot watch grow up, the home he cannot live in, the family he cannot enjoy, and then suddenly Cargo Commander becomes a document of the extreme sacrifice that this guy is making. In a way, the man’s wife and child are held hostage by the company: Work harder, hard worker, or you’ll never see your family again.

Both Hofmeier and Ernst have real-life inspirations for their work. Hofmeier’s random curiosity about street vendors led to research and respect–in many ways, Cart Life is a Studs Terkel-esque work of creative journalism. The park has a statue of Ruby the Knish Man–it sounds like a lost Malamud or Singer story. He was a real New York City knish vendor. The whole game is, in a way, Hofmeier’s attempt to build a statue for an oft-ignored group of people whose stories he felt moved to share. Ernst based his game partially on memories of his father, who worked in a dangerous factory he was never allowed to see as a child, the deep space setting an exaggerated version of that life. In many ways, Cargo Commander represents an opportunity for Ernst to thank his father for the sacrifices he’s made for his family–but in translating the setting and not even naming the cargo commander, Ernst universalizes it. It has been the traditional role of men to place themselves in dangerous, life threatening situations so that women may enjoy the privilege of not having to. And we’ve all met at least one person who’s living in the US in order to earn money to send back home. Critiques of patriarchy from the point of view of the housewife–that her options are extremely limited–are all valid, and all necessary. And yet Cargo Commander shows us the flip side–both men and women are victims of a system which exploits its workers without caring about them. At one point, the computer sending you emails each time you go up a level breaks down; the traditional “Hello INSERT EMPLOYEE NAME HERE, your INSERT ACCOMPLISHMENT HERE has been recognized” joke is made, and it’s particularly cruel because you don’t even have the dignity of being able to pretend that a piece of boilerplate form text is an actual person.

And yet, much as people see Cart Life as a depression simulator, as dark and as cynical as Cargo Commander can be, in each is the hope of human connection. A job running a food cart is unsteady, unstable work which hurts the spine and fatigues the brain–and yet, a chat with a regular customer, a random good tip, someone finding something you made delicious–that makes it all worthwhile. And the Cargo Commander may be sacrificing everything for his family–but it wouldn’t be a sacrifice if it wasn’t awful, and you know what? He loves them enough that he doesn’t even really think about it. Both games take place inside inherently corrupt systems which give no safety net to its lowest members, and either game can make one receptive to arguments against capitalism. And yet, until change occurs, we’re living in a world of Work, and of Work which may not necessarily be fulfilling, or even necessary–I can think of no possible future that would employ someone to find ugly sweaters and bent forks. Human connection is what makes life in a world of drudgery bearable. And so, one leaves Cargo Commander and Cart Life, neighbors, enemies–and friends–with a strong impression of empathy, and of love.

“For Dad”

Cargo Commander–a nifty little game I got from Indie Royale; as of 4/28, it’s available for another four days. Not sure if I’m gonna do a proper writeup of the game or not, but I’d like to explain the setup for this screenshot:

The premise of the game is you’re this cargo salvage dude in deep space. Sectors get generated based on names you can type in–join sector Foxylvania and try to beat my high score–and feature waves of cargo containers that you bop around in, salvaging and fighting mutants.

Review: Corn Zone

Frankie Greco was a cliche back in high school, if you think about it. I say this not to pass  judgment–we are all cliches at some point or another–but to let you know what we all saw when we looked at him: A broody, tortured, awkward 16-year-old guy who could barely stammer out a sentence in class but who fucking loved to play. His life had held no meaning for him until the day he picked up a guitar at the age of 12. In a way we all envied him: Now, at the age of 30, I’m no closer to figuring out what the fuck I’m doing with my life than I was then, but he had solved the puzzle before he hit puberty. He was too strange and awkward to be cool, really, to the degree that coolness means anything, his music was so esoteric and personal to be listenable, and he was too standoffish to cultivate any real friendships. He’d been super best friends with this guy Billy that he’d known since childhood, but in the proud tradition of many inseparably close best friends, the age of sixteen was the acid test, and they went their separate ways. No one really hung out with him beyond the occasional time like the one I’m about to relate. But he was tortured, he was decent-looking, and he played guitar, and that goes a long way towards distant respect.

I’m telling you all of this because I think it’s kind of necessary to explain how, for a few weird weeks in March of 2001, a Tamagotchi craze–an echo of the original one–broke out in the senior class of our high school.

Flying Man

Summer, the back room of a Trader Joe’s, late evening, maybe around eight or so, temperature in the late 60s, so it’s coolish, and the sun’s still setting so it’s still light out, and Pete’s got the most of a pack of cigarettes and some time to smoke at least one, and Tim’s got some food, and the two enjoy each others’ company, so why the long faces, boys?

“Some people”, Pete offers, “aren’t very good at being happy.” He’s older by a few years, and done with college, and presumably wiser, so it falls to him to give the advice, make the observations. “Maybe,” he continues, “you’re just like that. I know I am.” And this is true: generally something navy-colored hangs out in the middle of Pete’s chest, where the ribs meet, and sometimes things like cigarettes or proximity to Tim help that, but sometimes, nowtimes, for example, they seem to deepen it.

“I just wish I’d cheer up,” Tim says, and looks to Pete for help. So Pete decides to do a little trick that he knows.

Frog Fractions

I wrote this one last November for a failed blog experiment, but I’m still into this piece, so enjoy!

Any of the blogs where I’ve seen Frog Fractions recommended have basically said the same thing: “Oh, just go play it, trust me.” The disclaimer is necessary: Frog Fractions initially appears to be a shitty edutainment game. We’ve played a billion of those–ones where what you’re doing only vaguely relates to the lesson they’re trying to teach you. Oregon Trail was a better videogame than a history class.

So for the first few minutes of Frog Fractions you’re a little frog gobbling up bugs, and randomly fractions are appearing, and they’re adding to your score, but nothing’s really happening with them–they don’t seem to be adding to anything coherent. And you begin to get upgrades. And some of them are standard, and then some get strange: One upgrade is for an electronic tracking chip to make catching bugs easier, and then another unlocks which lets you get the chip surgically removed. And then that unlocks another upgrade where you change your mind and put the chip back. And then you can decide that the natural way is best and remove it. And this goes back and forth until the description text for the upgrade turns into an argument where the two sides are arguing between themselves whether or not you should be using this upgrade, and ultimately that devolves into “nuh-uh”/”yeah-huh”-level grunting, until ultimately both sides agree to disagree and leave it to the player to decide whether or not to have the targeting cursor. You can upgrade the frog with a computer brain which turns the fractions into decimals and those weird numbers that have “+e” in them that no one really understands. And you can upgrade your lillypad to a turtle, and to a faster-moving dragon, and then you get a rocket engine and the dragon blasts off into space to face the bugs on their homeworld (Bug Mars), and suddenly it’s a shooter game. And that’s when the game slowly begins to reveal itself.

For The Cost of Bioshock Infinite, You Could Buy 60 Copies of Miner Dig Deep (More If You Count Tax)

I’m forever in love with Arcadian Rhythms for introducing me to Miner Dig Deep. Waking Mars was one thing, but the true palate cleanser after the unpleasant cacaphony that was Bioshock Infinite was Miner Dig Deep, a $1 Xbox Live Indie Game made by the Three Brothers Ribaux who seem to have done nothing else and it is a goddamn shame. (It’s probably for the best–I love Miner Dig Deep so goddamn much that if I could find an email address for them I would be pestering them daily with ideas for cool new features and badass things that could happen in the sequel that I would be daily pestering them to make.)

Look, it’s a super simple game. You’re a miner, there’s a mine, and you’ve got to chip away at the dirt and get gems. You bring the gems to the surface and buy tools, which make digging down easier. The further you dig, the better gems you get, and the more you can sell them for. Eventually you make it to the bottom, you find the largest diamond in the world, and you can either start a new mine or continue bumming around getting more gems. The whole time, soothing guitar music plays–light, pleasant instrumental stuff seemingly made by one of the brothers with a copy of Garageband–and it’s got pleasant, colorful graphics. The worst thing that happens in the game is you get hit by a boulder or fall down too far, at which case you just reappear at the top of the mine having lost all the gems, maybe ten minutes of progress at most. It’s just a happy game.