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Leigh Alexander

Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra editor-at-large, Kotaku and EDGE mag columnist, and NYLON Guys games editor, is on Twitter.

Here's a wistful, intriguing game you need to play this week

strangelife1 Video games can vividly render the memories you can't get back.

Memories such as how it felt when you were in high school, and your best friend's parents got divorced, and when her dad got to take her out to dinner at the weekend, you got to come. And on the way home he was letting you listen to your alt-rock radio, and you just sat there quietly, consumed by feelings you were too young to understand.

Or how it is when you and her are friends and then you're not friends, and then one day you might kind of be friends again, and you return to her house, where you used to play, except this time you're older and everyone's older, and things are achingly familiar and alien at the same time. Or when your friend needs something from you and life is huge and confusing, and you don't quite know what to say. Seriously, there are some video games that can give you that.

The latest of these is Life is Strange, from French team Dontnod Entertainment. A simple, dialogue and environment-driven character study, it follows photography student Max through her transition into a new school. As she navigates cliques, the threadwork of long-dropped relationships, and the pressure of authority figures, she also accidentally stumbles on the unexplained ability to rewind time and to re-do decisions.

lifeisstrange3 If you've ever played any kind of story-driven choice game -- for example, Telltale Games' The Walking Dead series, which is available on basically every platform -- you're familiar with the unique pang that comes with making a decision, realizing it'll haunt you, wondering how you would have felt about a different choice. Life Is Strange, which shares The Walking Dead's episodic format, uses its unique rewind mechanic to answer the sort of nagging what-ifs that pursue any player of story games -- and, fittingly, any person who thinks back to their teen years.

It feels like being able to press your finger into the binding of a Choose Your Own Adventure, in case you want to go back. It's like those half-remembered moments of your own youth, when every word out of your mouth felt crucial, pivotal: Would you re-do, if you could?

The currently-available first episode of Life is Strange is profoundly touching, populated with characters who feel like real kids, dorm rooms and family homes and wistful backyards that feel like real places. Do you remember the first time you, grown a bit bigger, returned to someplace you used to play? You and her, in her room with the posters, letting the music play? You still remember, don't you, what it feels like to make your way through an endless corridor of lockers, bodies and souls, chatter and friction? This game uses memories like these to craft its sentimental high points, even as the time-rewind mechanic promises to make each player's experience as Max feel carefully-chosen and meaningful.

Life is Strange is simple and lovely and anyone can play it. It has a beautiful, handmade-feel diary full of art and stickers for you to read if you get lost or you forget what's going on. If you have a PC, a PS3, a PS4, an Xbox 360 or an Xbox One, you can try the first episode for just $4.99.

Help these young dames get to the Game Developers Conference

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Toronto-based nonprofit Dames Making Games runs events and programs for women, non-binary, queer, trans and gender non-conforming creators who want to get into game design.

"We believe game-making can be an act of resistance, giving creators ultimate agency in the expression of their identities, politics, selves, genders and sexualities. Our work has the power to transform our communities, and positively impact industry policies and practice.

We believe that creating space and time to make and talk about games in an explicitly feminist context elevates the craft, amplifies alternative and diverse narratives, and supports the socio-cultural changes that are necessary to make game design accessible to all."

Currently DMG has just about a week left to finish fundraising so that some of its constituency -- mostly young students, freelancers and low-income folks -- can attend the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. They've already been granted pricey passes on scholarship, but the travel arrangements themselves are cost-prohibitive. Going to GDC could be a crucial learning and networking opportunity for these folks.

If you're interested in learning more about DMG and considering supporting, check out their site. It's one possible answer to that guy you know who's always saying "yes, sexism in tech is terrible, but what can be done?"

This 1987 roguelike game is still great

If you had a Mac in the late 80s or early 90s, you might remember the excellent roguelike maze adventure Scarab of Ra. It still holds up very well today, the core tenets of its design more en vogue than ever.

If you can't be bothered fussing around with emulation, there's an in-browser version you need to know about -- check it out here.

Donald Duck promoting birth control? Sex ed history

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Collector's Weekly presents Slut Shaming, Eugenics and Donald Duck: The Scandalous History of Sex-Ed Movies, exploring the strange, often awkward and puritanical history of education about birth control and disease prevention through the years.

At one point, the Comstock Law even blocked anatomy textbooks; the idea of students learning how their own sex organs function in books was apparently scandalous to Victorians. While social purity leaders urged parents to teach their children proper sexual morals, by the end of the 1800s they were looking to school as the next-best place to teach proper behavior. In 1892, the National Education Association teacher’s union, which was proposing a standard 12-year school curriculum, passed a resolution endorsing “moral education” in schools.

Whoa. Yet by the 1910s, there were already apparently a number of graphic films about venereal diseases -- and later on, films about how the "brassy", low-income girl from under the bleachers would probably be the vector by which "nice boys" spread it to their "nice" girlfriends.

And that's before we even get into "stranger danger" films:

Former child actor Sid Davis became the driving force behind “stranger danger” guidance films. “Sid Davis is very much his own phenomenon,” says Prelinger, who was friends with the director before his death. “He was a chancer himself. He had been a juvenile delinquent and a bit of a gambler, and he’d made fortunes and lost them. Before he died, he told me the story of how he was working as John Wayne’s stand-in on the set of ‘Red River,’ and he was talking with the Duke about a case of kidnapping and child molestation in L.A. And the Duke said, ‘Why don’t you make a film?’ and staked him money to make ‘The Dangerous Stranger’ (1950), which was the first film about abduction and sex crimes—the sex crimes being suggested, if not shown.
It's a long read, but an educational and amusing one.

Find more queer women of color on Netflix

Sistah Sinema aims to offer a wide selection of films by and about queer women of color. It's via a partnership with Indieflix which hopes to add about five titles per month to the platform while showcasing global diversity.

Memberships are only $5 per month, and Colorlines recommended films including Cheryl Dunye’s important 1997 film “The Watermelon Woman” and Kourtney Ryan Ziegler’s look at black transmen, “Still Black".

[h/t Elixher]

Dark mornings: tool to help you calculate gloomy commutes

gmoomyThe toughest part of the Winter season isn't the cold, the blues, or December's annual cramming of a full month's work plus last-minute whatevers into three actual work weeks (are you on Boing Boing pre-holiday procrastinating? Hey, me too!) The hard part is commuting in the dark.

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Derby the dog runs with the help of 3D printing

Friends, I have endeavored to develop a carapace to protect me against Inspiring Dog Videos of any kind on the internet. You can tell me I won't believe what happens next and I will -- oh, you cried at 1:43 or whatever, but not I.

Yet I can't resist this cute story of Derby the Dog, born disabled, who was given custom 3D printed prosthetics that allow him to run for the very first time. Maybe because all of the very serious science and design stuff that is going on in the video. Yeah. I'm here for the serious science and design stuff.

Want to try making a video game? Visit the Sorting Hat

sortinghatIf you have ever read anything I've written about video games, you will have heard me insert notations about the democratization of tools. The business of making games used to necessitate access to bureaucratic, white-guys-only organizations and their social and professional lexicons. But now there are radical tools that anyone can use to make games about anything they want.

That's good in theory, but how do you know where to start? Developer Zoe Quinn has made a simple new online utility designed to help experimental developers and new creators alike see which tools are right for their vision. Sortingh.at makes recommendations depending on your aspirations and existing abilities, and also provides links to resources online you can use to learn how to use those tools.

Lowering traditional barriers to entry and de-mystifying aspects of game creation is a great way to welcome new creators to the table in a space that arguably needs some fresh voices and different perspectives.

This is the best Best Art list

Animal NY is one of my personal favorite sites for Stuff To Do With Net Art, and Rhett Jones has a formidable "The Best Art of 2014" list up just now. That's a funny title -- best art.

There are a number of great projects on the list -- parody, performance art, political work, Clickhole -- anything Jones would describe as "extremely ambitious, extremely innovative, extremely funny and extremely communal."

Mystery of creepy 1970s Sesame Street clip solved

I didn't truly appreciate what a miracle is YouTube til I realized how many half-remembered Sesame Street sketches, songs and puppet shows from my grainy, nostalgic childhood could be found there. Some of them seem quite odd in retrospect, and there are folks out there dedicated to tracking down the oddest.

Jon Armond and friends had some lingering memories of a 1970s song-animation where the cracks on a girl's wall come to life and become her friends -- Crack Camel, Crack Monkey and Crack Hen.

It all goes a bit creepy when they meet Master Crack, a large, monstrous face-like cluster in a corner of the room, plaster crumbling from the maws of his eyes. Who thought this would be a good idea to show children?

To find the "Master Crack" clip, Armond went on a veritable quest, recorded in this audio documentary. If Serial was just about trying to find weird old children's show clips from the 70s I'd be so hooked.

Anyone remember an old Sesame clip that was just the stop-motion transmutation of a sandbox into a desert scene, accompanied by gentle music? I think two toy rhinos were placed into it at the end. If you know that one and can find it, Tweet me (@leighalexander)!

[h/t Laughingsquid]

Help preserve feminist video gaming history

Back in the mid-90s, late game maker Theresa Duncan made some unconventional, ground-breaking CD games based on the everyday experiences of young girls. There's now a Kickstarter campaign to bring them back and ensure her seminal work isn't lost to history:

This project, by the NYC-based digital art nonprofit Rhizome, will fund the process of putting three games directed by Duncan—Chop Suey (1995, co-created with Monica Gesue), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997)—online, for the first time ever. With your help, they will be playable in any modern browser via emulation and available for free, for a minimum of one year.
Throughout my career as a video game critic, and in recent years a feminist one, I've noticed we tend to treat the advent of girls and women's stories as novel. To lots of us, they are -- for example I'd never read a syllabus on feminist games, or seen work like my friend Nina Freeman's vignette games (Nina just successfully defended her thesis and got a Masters of Science in Integrated Digital Media from NYU, congrats Nina), til my adulthood.

But the games business' particular fixation on newness and "innovation" mustn't divorce us from our obligation to history -- that's what makes Rhizome's work with Duncan's oeuvre more important now than ever.

Read Jenn Frank on Theresa Duncan's memory here, or her piece about Duncan's Chop Suey here. For more on girlhood and the early days of games, here I am in the Guardian on Rachel Weil's feminist art.

The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix

At Motherboard, Claire Evans presents a brilliant "Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists, sharing bits of her correspondence with pioneering Australian tech-goddesses Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt, four net artists who worked together under the pseudonym "VNS Matrix". It's awesome.

Evans met them as part of her exploration of the Cyberfeminism cultural movement, which she said "peaked in the early 1990s and dissipated sometime between the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the coming of Y2K."

VNS Matrix worked in a wide variety of media: computer games, video installations, events, texts, and billboards. In their iconic “​Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century,” they called themselves the “virus of the new world disorder,” and “terminators of the moral codes.” With this irreverent, but keenly political language, they articulated a feminist aesthetic of slimy, unpretty, vigilantly nose-thumbing technological anarchy. They coded. They built websites. They hung out in chat rooms and text-based online communities like ​LambdaMOO. They told stories through interactive code and experiences like the CD-ROM game All New Gen, in which a female protagonist fought to defeat a military-industrial data environment called “Big Daddy Mainframe.” They believed the web could be a space for fluid creative experimentation, a place to transform and create in collaboration with a global community of like-minded artists.
Their work is part of a cool archive of art from a time when, they say, the internet was less masculine and capitalistic.

The year's best music, by mood

There are a lot of album of the year lists, but Hype Machine's Zeitgeist 2014 list is a bit special.

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How sound affects taste

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White wine goes with fish and red wine goes with meat. But some new research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford has apparently unearthed evidence of an implicit relationship between what we eat and what we hear -- between taste and pitch, as Scientific American reports.

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Now you can play as a border guard on iPad

One of my favorite games of recent years, Papers, Please (previously), just appeared on iPad. It'll be a good fit for the platform, and I hope this means more people will get to play it.

You play as a border agent for a fictional, grim Soviet Bloc-inspired nation. In the mundane and dehumanizing task of processing paperwork, you discover an unexpectedly complex landscape of decisions and provocations. You end up thinking a lot about The State, and the problematic, dehumanizing nature of bureaucracy itself.

Is it gauche to quote from my own review in the New Statesman from last year?

Just from a mechanical standpoint, balancing a complex set of components and variables is surprisingly engaging, a constant test of your acuity. The game has a delightful tactility to it: stamping feels so weighty and wet you can nearly smell the ink, and papers shuffle with excellent brittleness. As days pass in the game, the demands increase -- it soon becomes clear it’s nearly-impossible to process everyone in the same methodical way, without mistakes. You start losing money. Your son gets sick. And that’s when Papers, Please starts getting truly interesting.
The iPad version didn't launch without wrinkles, though. Apple initially rejected the game for 'pornographic content' -- the bleak, utterly unsexy nude backscatter photos you look at when you're screening for contraband. Creator Lucas Pope just put some underpants on there so that players who don't like the nudity have an option, and things are okay.

Apple says it was all a misunderstanding on its part -- but it's worth pointing out the company has a history of finding reasons to disallow uncomfortable political games from its App Store.

Reminding white allies that it's not about them right now

Photo: Reuters

Jetta Rae Robertson brings us the view from the front line of recent Berkeley protests on recent police violence against black people.

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Play thousands of 48-hour game jam entries

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The Ludum Dare international game jam is probably the largest event of its kind -- and the longest running, at over 12 years. Three times a year, game developers are challenged to build and share a new game within 48 hours, often documenting their process and making source code available. Each time, the community votes to agree on a theme.

This year's is 'Entire Game On One Screen.' Which sounds simple, like, 'okay, no iPad companion app,' but it's actually a real design challenge -- just think about how many games have menu screens, inventory screens, y'know, different levels, little things like that.

The submission phase is over, and anyone who wants to dive in can play and rate the 2,637 games, with 1,365 in actual competition (here's a cool entry browser if the website itself is overwhelming). It's fun to get involved, not only to learn more about the rapid prototyping process, but to see the seeds of game design's next wave of inspiration. The winner of the competition is always a creator to watch.

There's often a lot of brilliant weirdness -- like this 'hot n cold' maze game led by staring animals. Or this -- what is this? And there's something about this simple but beautifully-drawn dragon game that takes me back to the interactive net art domains I used to visit in the 90s.

The book of Genesis

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If you grew up in the comfortable eighties, you might still have memories of the 16-bit console war, the perverse thrill of wishing for a Super Nintendo or a Sega Genesis, and then arguing with other children on the playground about which was better.

These days being a Sega Genesis fan is a little bit weirder -- you chose the camp that would be basically out of the hardware market by the new millennium. A new book, Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works brings that beauty and weirdness to full-color life in a celebration of the Genesis by Guardian games editor Keith Stuart (disclosure: he commissions, edits and pays me when I write about games at the Guardian, which is sometimes).

The Verge's Chris Plante loves the book:

A 30-page history of a 1990s video game console serves a certain niche audience, but the 28 interviews with the people responsible for Sega’s hardware and most cherished games are more digestible and should pique the interest of anyone who owned the system. And there are dozens of glossy pages containing design documentary, hand sketches, key art, title screens, and photography. It's easy to zone out, turning between one drawing and the next.
Sega Mega Drive/Genesis: Collected Works is available for £35.00, while an extra £15 gets it to you by Christmas.

Dress like Twin Peaks

The visual style and fashion of Twin Peaks has never looked so cool as it does these days, if you ask me. Paste Magazine has put together a little "style guide" to copping the fashion of each iconic character -- as the holidays are coming up, just feel free to send me everything. Except the denim vest, because ew.

I still think about this Twin Peaks-inspired fashion line from last year -- although the online storefront doesn't seem to be around anymore, the widely-circulated images are a good example of how to derive style from symbols. And here are the eloquent results of a time David Lynch worked on a fashion collection.

There are a lot of Twin Peaks-themed jewelry crafts on Etsy, but this subtle "statement ring" is my favorite.

You, of course, are still thinking about my Boing Boing essay on the Twin Peaks revival, right?

Some worthwhile cultural analysis on Gamergaters

Two recent Storify pages provide some fascinating insight on how this group came to conceive of "gamer" as a fictional "ethnicity" with a persecution complex (from Katherine Cross), as well as on how the cultural norms of Chan-style boards drive this perplexing clash with the realms of people's real working and social lives (from A_Man_in_Black).

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A farmhouse shrine to obsolete computers

York University's Jim Austin, a teacher of neural computing, has accumulated some 1,000 machines across 30 years of collecting obsolete computers. He keeps them in four sheds at the top of of a hill behind his farmhouse in Yorkshire.

The London Review of Books visited Austin and learned some fascinating things about hardware depreciation:

‘This IBM mainframe was $8.7 million in 1983,’ he told me when I went to see them. ‘Which in today’s money is $24 million. I mean, that’s astronomical. And they’re scrapped after four years. That’s it. Scrap.’ He points to another. ‘The Fujitsu supercomputer, I think it depreciated at £16,000 a week for three years. Then it was zero.’ Behind the IBM and the Fujitsu are more machines: DECs, Wangs. ‘I just take them all home. I preserve them. I just collect them, because I like them. And I’ve got the sheds, so I just put them in.’

The visit to Austin's shrines to obsolescence makes for almost poetic reading -- especially the story of 2005's 64th-fastest machine in the world, whose former owner traded away half its processor boards for chocolate bars.

Serial and the uncomfortable sensation of reality radio

hae-min-lee This American Life offshoot Serial, where Sarah Koenig is presently digging into the 1999 murder of 18 year-old Hae Min Lee, has become a sensation. Koenig's deep dive into the oddly-patchy evidence and her interviews with key people -- notably Hae's ex boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the crime and is still incarcerated -- has turned a nation of listeners and Redditors into amateur sleuths and jurors.

There is something unsettling about The Guardian's recent series of photographs of the case's key locations: it's their bleakness, their small town-ness. Or maybe it's because they serve as a reminder that what's effectively become "reality radio" for listeners concerns a real-life place, a real victim and family.

The Guardian also interviewed Syed's family on what the apparently wholly-unexpected Serial sensation has meant for them. It's certainly interesting to listen to Koening's methodical study of the case, and my household's definitely hooked. Wouldn't it be amazing if her work leads to the truth about a situation where there arguably weren't enough answers?

Watching the murder become property of public opinion—especially with Syed's brother being told by a Reddit moderator that a key witness and former person of interest in the crime might be participating in the threads—leads to complex feelings.

A haunting war game about civilian survival

Polish developer 11bit Studios' recently-released This War of Mine, a bit of a different look at video games' favorite setting. Focused on hiding, building and survival, it puts the player in charge of a team of civilians.

The game was inspired by the 1,425 day-long Siege of Sarajevo, which began in 1992 during the Bosnian War. Last night I played with a friend, guiding an unlikely family of survivors through the dangerous work of scavenging food and supplies, and fortifying a shell of a home against invaders. You manage different civilians each time -- this time we had an athlete, a reporter and a chef in our care. Later, we were joined by a warm school principal who was scared to be alone. We had no kids to care for and couldn't afford the extra mouth, but we couldn't turn her away.

After two weeks of building rat traps and water filters and bargaining with other wanderers, scavenging in abandoned rubble -- imagine The Sims, but very, very dark, made moreso by the lifelike photographs of our characters -- we found a hotel overrun by armed madmen. It was a gripping reminder that combatants are hardly the only consideration in conflict.

The game is available on Steam.

Making egg nog for the British

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Did you know you can enjoy raw eggs relatively fearlessly in the UK? As an American often found hiding out in England, I was surprised to learn that they don't have egg nog here.

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Wattam, new game from Katamari Damacy creator, is about connections

You might know artist and designer Keita Takahashi for his iconic, idiosyncratic Katamari Damacy (previously). Last year, he joined Funomena to work with longtime friend and Journey producer Robin Hunicke on a brand-new game.

At Sony's PlayStation Experience event this weekend, Takahashi presented the first trailer for that PlayStation 4 game, called Wattam, which introduces a cube-like "mayor" character.

"The idea for this game came from when Keita was playing with his two-year old son, and wondered about what if all toys lived, and connected by themselves?" Hunicke writes. The word "Wattam" is derived from the Tamil and Japanese words for "making a circle" or "making a loop," as Takahashi worked with his friend Vikram on the project.

"This new word acknowledges one of the game’s core inspirations: making connections between different types of things," says Hunicke.

Did this 1975 anime inspire Disney's Little Mermaid?

This beautiful Toei Animation film, Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, was part of a Japanese film festival in 1975, and later reached the U.S. in 1979. My dad taped it off the TV for me when I was small—we were going on vacation and my parents worried I'd get upset if there were no familiar kids' programs.

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Twin Peaks and suspicion in small towns

Leigh Alexander on what changed between then and now: no-one calls the police in small-town TV shows anymore. Modern entertainment always has something to say about who we are, what we want and what we fear.

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A strong, self-absorbed female protagonist pushes the boundaries of spacetime

Leigh Alexander talks to Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan O’Malley about his new book, Seconds, and moving on to a new character–one for whom the imagined burdens of middle age loom large.

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Let's do international shots, it's Eurovision 2014!

Europe gathers again for its annual extravaganza of wonderfully bad music and simmering political resentments. Leigh Alexander reports on the not-so-unlikely victory of Austrian beauty Conchita Wurst.

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